To put it bluntly, the Chicago Bears safeties last year stunk. Both Major Wright and Chris Conte, two players that had been on ascending career paths, regressed dramatically. Injuries to the front seven didn't help but both players repeatedly missed tackles and allowed receivers to beat them deep.
Wright is gone and Conte is in the final year of his rookie contract. GM Phil Emery kicked off free agency by signing Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, both of whom were starters last year. Yet the duo has two total interceptions in eight NFL seasons combined, so it's safe to say neither is a slam-dunk starter. In fact, Jennings had just two total pass breakups in two full years as a starter for the Green Bay Packers.
Bodies have been thrown at the position but it's questionable if improvements have been made.
As such, it's highly likely the Bears will use an early-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on a safety. With that in mind, let's break down the safeties projected to fall in the first three rounds, with an eye toward players who can start as early as this season.
Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Alabama (6-1, 208)Clinton-Dix is widely considered the best safety in this year's class. He's a rangy free safety who has unique instincts as a center fielder. He was second-team All-American his junior season in 2013 and first-team All-SEC. He's not the most physically gifted player at his position but he's arguably the smartest. He's a willing tackler and uses good form, but he's not a physical, in-the-box safety. Clinton-Dix is a quality player with upside, one who is a Day 1 starter, but it's tough to consider him a Top 15 pick. He wouldn't be a bad selection for the Bears at 14th overall but it's unlikely he'll be the best player available.
Projected: 1st Round
Calvin Pryor, Louisville (5-11, 207)Pryor is a powerful strong safety who can lay the lumber as a tackler. He was named first-team All-ACC last season after compiling 69 tackles, three interceptions two forced fumbles. He's a load in run support, one who takes pride in eliminating ball carriers. He also has good range in the secondary and excels in zone coverage. He wasn't asked to play much man-to-man in college and could struggle if matched up against elite tight ends and wide receivers. Yet as an in-the-box player, Pryor would immediately upgrade Chicago's league-worst run defense. Like Clinton-Dix though, Pryor isn't a bona fide Top 15 player, due mainly to his limitations in coverage, but if the Bears could find a trade-back partner, Pryor would be an ideal selection in the back half of the first round.
Projected: 1st Round
Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois (5-11, 193)Ward was a highly productive three-year starter for the Huskies (95 tackles, 7 interceptions in 2013) and a three-time All-Mac selection. He was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as a senior last season. Ward is an athletic player with outstanding range. He's also a downhill safety who is aggressive against the run. At the Senior Bowl, Ward was very impressive in man coverage, an area in which he has been criticized. He's still rough around the edges, and he's a little small for the position, but Ward has as much upside as any safety in this year's class. He can play either free or strong safety and, if he ever puts it all together, could be a second-round gem for the Bears.
Projected: 2nd Round
Deone Bucannon, Washington State (6-1, 211)Bucannon has limitations in coverage, particularly in man sets, but beyond that, there is little not to like about the former Cougar. He's a lights-out hitter, one who can absolutely destroy ball carriers if given a free run. He led the Pac-12 in tackles last season on his way to earning first-team All-American honors. He was a four-year starter at Washington State and three-year team captain. At the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, Bucannon put on a show, testing at or near the top of his position in every single drill. He's big, fast, strong and experienced, and he loves to hit. He'll need work in coverage, which is why he's not a first-round pick, but he has all the tools to be legitimate starting strong safety at the next level. The Bears met with Bucannon at the Senior Bowl and again privately this week. If he falls to them in the second round, chalk him up as the team's next strong safety.
Projected: 2nd Round
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Terrence Brooks, Florida State (5-11, 198)Brooks didn't stand out in FSU's vaunted defense last year but he was a big key in the Seminoles' championship run. A former cornerback, Brooks is very good in coverage and has the speed (his 4.42 40-yard dash was the combine's fastest at his position) to turn and run with the best of them. He has cornerback instincts, which will serve him very well as an NFL back-end safety. Brooks is a willing tackler but his technique must improve. He missed too many tackles last year. Brooks doesn't jump out at you on film (38 tackles, two interceptions last season) but he does everything well.
Projected: 2nd-3rd Round
Ed Reynolds, Stanford (6-1, 207)Reynolds is a playmaker who had six interceptions in 2012, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He's not athletically gifted – he didn't have a great combine – but he's a quality cover safety who has shown the ability to match up with the new breed of tight ends. His father was an NFL linebacker. He's not a great tackler though and must develop better read-and-react skills in coverage. Reynolds isn't a Day 1 starter but he'll be a key special teams player at the next level, with the potential for much more. For the Bears though, he doesn't appear to be much of an improvement over Steltz.
Projected: 3rd-4th Round
The Pick: Deone Buccanon, 2nd Round
The Bears are very interested in Buccanon due to his ability in run support. The club was 32nd against the run last year and Emery has gone out of his way this offseason to address that need. Buccanon would be the next piece of the puzzle. He plays like a fourth linebacker, with the speed and quickness to improve in coverage. He's a no-brainer in the second round.
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.