The final play of the 2013 Chicago Bears season, a blown coverage that cost the team a chance at the playoffs, confirmed what fans and analysts already knew: the team's safeties were bad, very bad.
Starters Major Wright and Chris Conte regressed dramatically under coordinator Mel Tucker, who began his coaching career as a defensive backs coach. The duo unraveled as the season progressed, continually allowing receivers to beat them deep and missing numerous tackles.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Conte and Wright combined for nine touchdowns allowed last year, which was tied with Oakland's Charles Woodson and Brandian Ross for the most by any safety pairing in the NFL. Wright and Conte also combined for 31 missed tackles, which also led the league.
It was a surprising and disappointing performance from a pair of young players who up until that point in their short careers had shown steady improvement. Wright hit free agency this offseason and will not return, while Conte has one more year on his rookie deal turn his career around.
Bears GM Phil Emery acted swiftly in free agency to address the position, signing former Giants safety Ryan Mundy within the first few hours of the season. He then added M.D. Jennings, a starter for the Green Bay Packers the last two years. Last week, Danny McCray was inked and Craig Steltz was re-signed. Four players in a little more than two week's time shows an earnest effort by Emery to improve a position of need.
Or does it?
Former head coach Lovie Smith drafted a safety in all but one of his nine years at the helm. At the same time, former GM Jerry Angelo aggressively pursued veterans, both in free agency and trade, to add stability to the back end. The common misconception is that Smith and Angelo put their best foot forward in addressing the safety position, yet things just never worked out.
In reality, they did little more than throw bodies at the position year in and year out. Sure, they selected eight safeties in nine years but just one, Danieal Manning, was taken higher than the third round. The team developed Manning into a quality, dependable safety but Angelo low-balled him at the end of his rookie contract and Manning bolted to Houston. And the experienced safeties Angelo brought in – Adam Archuleta, Chris Harris Part II – were little more than retread veterans.
The former Bears brain trust spent a lot of time on the safety position but it wasn't quality time.
The same could be said for Emery's work in free agency to this point. Of the four safeties he has signed, only Mundy has the potential upgrade the position. He's a tough, aggressive safety who could help the team in the run game. Yet Mundy has just 14 career starts in five NFL seasons, with two total interceptions.
Jennings was a two-year starter for the Packers. During those 26 starts, he had one interception and three total passes defended. Consider this: opposing quarterbacks had a 146.8 rating when throwing at Wright last year; only five safeties in the league were worse and Jennings (148.8) was one of them.
Steltz is a quality special teams player but after six years in Chicago, we know he's not a viable starter. The same goes for McCray, who was a starter in just one of his four seasons in Dallas.
If that is Emery's solution to one of the biggest problems on the team, the Bears' safeties will again be the biggest position of weakness next season.
Which is why it's very likely he'll use one of the team's top two picks on a safety in this year's draft. Alabama's Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix is the top rated player at the position but he'll likely be gone by the time the Bears select at 14th overall. Louisville's Calvin Pryor is an option, as he's a physical, in-the-box safety, yet he doesn't necessarily have the elite skill set teams look for in a Top-15 selection.
There is plenty of value at safety in the second round, with a trio of players that could come in and start for the Bears on opening day. Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois), Deone Bucannon (Washington State) and Terrence Brooks (Florida State) have to be the team's top targets on Day 2 of the draft.
If not, and Emery follows Angelo's strategy of shooting fish in a barrel in the later rounds, the Bears in 2014 will again struggle to find competency on the back end of the secondary.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.