The underwhelming performance of the Chicago Bears defense last season has been well documented. While there was blame to go around, much of the heat landed on the shoulders of the team’s safeties.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Chris Conte and Major Wright graded a combined -42.2 in 2013, which was by far the worst total from any safety duo in the league. After parting ways with Wright, Chicago’s front office signed a number of free-agent safeties and then drafted another safety in the fourth round.
Yet it’s tough to say any of these acquisitions will dramatically improve the Bears safety play this year. Due to inexperience, injury and poor play in recent years, there are serious concerns with every safety on the team’s roster.
The fact is Bears brass believe an improved front seven will mask the potential lack of talent on the back end. It’s the reason GM Phil Emery was aggressive pursuing defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Trevor Scott in free agency, as well as re-signing defensive tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins. In addition, Emery invested two early-round draft picks on interior defenders Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton.
If the front seven can clog run lanes and stop running backs at the line of scrimmage, the safeties won’t be challenged to make tackles in the open field, one of the toughest things for any NFL defender. If the front seven can pressure the quarterback and force hurried throws, the safeties won’t be forced to track receivers deep down the field.
That’s the prevailing wisdom.
Yet recent numbers show that, even if Chicago’s defensive line and linebackers take a big step forward this season, that doesn’t mean the safeties can play like they did last year.
Of the 10 participants in the past five Super Bowls, only two teams had a safety tandem that graded negatively during the regular season: the 2011 Green Bay Packers (-3.0) and the 2013 Denver Broncos (-7.3). The other eight teams all had starting safeties that combined for positive PFF grades, including the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, whose safeties graded +13.8 last year.
Chicago’s safeties have to be above average in 2014 if the club wants any chance at bringing home another Lombardi Trophy, which is a tall task considering how poorly they played last season.
So which of the candidates can Bears fans count on to raise the level of play on the back end?
Let’s start with the free agents, Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings. Mundy’s first and only year as a starter came last season for the New York Giants. Per PFF, he graded -0.4 against the run and -0.7 against the pass. Those are average numbers, so don’t expect a Pro Bowl campaign from Mundy, yet those are far better grades than his predecessors.
Mundy proved a solid presence against the run, missing just five tackles all season, but there are some concerns about his ability in coverage. In 2013, he allowed a 70.0 completion percentage and opposing quarterbacks had a combined 113.1 passer rating when throwing at him. Those are dangerously high totals, so you can expect Mundy to give up his fair share of plays in coverage.
Jennings’ performance last season provides very little confidence. His 148.8 passer rating against was third worst at his position, while his 88.9 completion percentage allowed was dead last amongst NFL safeties.
Conte’s drop off last year was dramatic, so he’s a solid candidate for a bounce-back season. The problem with Conte is that, even at his best, he’s never graded in the positive in any of his three NFL seasons. His best year came as a rookie in 2011, when he graded -1.1 against the run and -0.3 in coverage.
The Bears also added five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson, yet he’s 35 and coming off an Achilles tear that cost him all of 2013. Wilson last played in 2012 for the Arizona Cardinals, when he graded -5.2 against the run and -1.2 overall. It’s tough to count on him at this point.
Rookie Brock Vereen worked with the first team for the majority of OTAs and minicamp but recent history shows that mid-round safeties rarely have an impact their first year in the league. Even if Vereen is a legitimate long-term option at safety, don’t expect him to provide much of a boost this year.
If Conte’s shoulder is healthy by the beginning of training camp, the best-case scenario would be for him and Mundy to line up as starters. If each plays to his highest level, the Bears will have an average duo on the back end, which might be good enough for a deep playoff run.
Yet neither player has ever finished an NFL campaign as a starter with a positive overall grade from PFF. Pro Football Focus is far from the last word in NFL analysis but it’s safe to say that a Conte/Mundy combination has a fairly low ceiling.
The same could be said for any starting safety duo that emerges from training camp. Will that be good enough for a Bears team that has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations? The odds say it’s unlikely but at this point there is no ringer waiting in the wings. Chicago’s coaching staff must find competency on the back end, no matter how good the front seven plays, or else it could once again ruin a promising campaign.
To avoid that scenario, the team will have to squeeze every ounce of talent from its current crop of safeties. Let the uphill climb begin.
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.