The Chicago Bears have struggled to find a competent safety duo for the past decade. Names like Adam Archuleta, M.D. Jennings, Adrian Wilson, Major Wright, Craig Steltz, Danny McCray, Chris Conte, Brandon Meriweather, Al Afalava and Brandon Hardin have all been part of a never-ending carousel at the safety position.
The Bears have been aggressive the past two seasons in free agency and the draft adding talent at safety, yet it’s still anyone’s guess how the back-end pairing will play out during training camp and the preseason.
That said, it appears Antrel Rolle is firmly entrenched as the experienced leader of this group, as well as the entire defense. During off-season practices, Rolle, a 10-year NFL veteran, was the vocal orchestrator in the secondary. Barring injury, he’ll break camp as a Week 1 starter at safety.
Beyond Rolle, there will be an open competition during training camp at Bourbonnais for the other starting safety spot. From what I’ve seen the past few months, that will be a battle between Ryan Mundy and Brock Vereen.
Let’s break down this upcoming competition between the veteran and the youngster.
Mundy and Rolle played together in the same defensive backfield in New York in 2013. That season, the Giants finished Top 10 in the NFL in passing defense. There is built in chemistry between the two veterans.
Last season, Mundy was a leader of Chicago’s defense both on and off the field. He led the team in total tackles (103) and interceptions (4), one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Mundy was easily the most consistent player on a poor defense last year. He’s a six-year veteran who can play in the box as a strong safety and still has enough coverage skills to patrol the back end. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks had a 75.9 passer rating when throwing at Mundy in 2014, which is solid.
He turned 30 on February, so age is not on his side, but he showed no signs of slowing down last season.
Mundy was lined up as the starter during the first wave of off-season workouts this year but was replaced by Vereen at the start of OTAs. Vereen has worked alongside Mundy with the first team for the past month.
The club’s fourth-round pick last season, Vereen played 513 snaps his rookie year and started four contests. He finished with 39 total tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one pass breakup.
The new coaching staff obviously likes Vereen, a player who at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine showed speed (4.47 40-yard dash), power (25 bench-press reps) and quickness (6.90 3-cone drill and a 4.07 short shuttle).
He’s a cornerback turned- afety whose first reps in an NFL contest came in Week 2 last year at slot corner. And remember, he was in coverage in the end zone on the final play of the game, a Jets incompletion that sealed the win for the Bears.
Vereen is extremely athletic and comes from solid bloodlines – his brother Shane last season won a Super Bowl championship as the starting running back for the New England Patriots. Other than his relative inexperience, there’s very little not to like about the 22-year-old and his potential as a starter.
The Verdict: Brock Vereen
Mundy is a solid safety that performs well in both coverage and in run support. He’s a leader in every sense of the word and is a great influence in the locker room.
With Mundy, you know what you’re going to get. With Vereen, there’s untapped potential. He’s fast, powerful and did not wilt as a rookie. He made strides this off-season and the team wants to see what they’ve got in their second-round defender.
At the same time, you don’t have to ask Vereen to do too much, as Rolle will be making all the calls in the secondary. All the kid has to do is make plays, which he did capably in his first year. If he shows even more progress in minicamp and the preseason, there’s no way you can keep a player with his upside off the field.
And if Vereen falters when the games matter, you turn to the veteran Mundy, who already has experience playing alongside Rolle. Mundy is a class act and a professional, so don’t worry about hurt feelings if he’s not the opening-day starter. He’ll perform at a high level whenever called into duty but with Vereen you might as well take a long look at a kid who could be special.
When you consider the future of the defense, it makes even more sense to start Vereen this year. Gaining valuable experience with Rolle on the first team will prepare him to take on a bigger leadership role in 2016 and beyond. The Bears used a fourth-round pick on a safety again this year, Adrian Amos, whom many believe is a long-term answer at the position.
So if Vereen clicks this season, he can help Amos ease into the starting role next year. And if both players pan out, the safety carousel in Chicago may finally stop spinning.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.