The Chicago Bears defense ranked 4th in the NFL against the pass in 2015, yet that high rank is misleading.
Finishing 4th overall was the product of volume, as opposing offenses chose to punish the club's 22nd-ranked run defense rather than air the ball out. Offenses threw the ball 512 times against Chicago's defense, which was fifth fewest in the league. That is the reason the Bears ranked so high and not because of the secondary's efficiency.
The Bears ranked 20th in the league in yards per attempt (7.5), 25th in passing touchdowns allowed (31) and 25th in opposing QB rating (99.3). On a per-pass, per-game basis, Chicago's secondary was deep into the bottom half of the league.
Rush and coverage work hand in hand, so no one unit is to blame, yet the play of the club's safeties last year left a lot to be desired.
Fifth-round rookie Adrian Amos was a force in run support but struggled in coverage. Antrel Rolle could only stay healthy for less than half the season, while Chris Prosinski and Harold Jones-Quartey proved unreliable replacements.
To illustrate the struggles of the Bears' safeties, consider these statistics: on deep left passes, the safeties gave up 14.07 yards per play, 28th in the NFL; on deep right passes, they allowed 12.5 yards per play, 23rd in the NFL. Throwing deep left against the Bears, opposing offenses completed 43.1 percent of passes, which ranked 24th, while deep right passes were completed 40.6 percent of the time (23rd ranked).
Rolle was signed to a three-year deal last off-season but has no guaranteed money going forward. The 33-year-old will likely be cut this off-season.
Amos appears to have long-term starter potential but the Bears must find a quality veteran to shore up the back end of the defense.
With that in mind, let's break down the top free agent safeties that will soon hit the open market.
Eric Berry, Kansas City (6-0, 212) Age: 27
Berry was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year last season after his return from beating cancer. The four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro picked up right where he left off, dominating the defensive backfield for the Chiefs. Berry is one of the best safeties in the business and he's only 27 years old. He would cure what ails the Bears but he'll command a huge contract as a free agent. Update: The Chiefs have placed the franchise tag on Berry.
Eric Weddle, San Diego (5-11, 200) Age: 31
Weddle has a roundabout tie to Chicago, as he was the player the Chargers selected after trading up with the Bears in the 2nd round in 2007 - which the Bears then used on Dan Bazuin. Had the Bears kept the pick and selected Weddle, the non-stop safety carousel of the past decade would have never gained momentum. Weddle left San Diego under bad terms and is looking to sign elsewhere. Age is a concern but the three-time Pro Bowler and five-time All Pro would look very good in the navy and orange.
Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland (5-11, 205) Age: 26
A former undrafted free agent in 2012, Gipson has been one of the best safeties in the league the past four years. He led the AFC in interceptions in 2013 (5) and 2014 (6). He has 22 career pass breakups and 14 interceptions. He's by far one of the best ball-hawking back-end defenders in the NFL, one whose presence would fix those deep-ball problems we discussed earlier. He's only 26, so if the Bears want Gipson, GM Ryan Pace is going to have to open the pocket book wide.
George Iloka, Cincinatti (6-4, 225) Age: 26
A strong player in run support, Iloka brought his coverage game to a new level last year, using his linebacker size to his advantage. He's developed into a well-rounded player and doesn't turn 26 until next month. He's not an elite safety but he's a solid player with upside, which should have the Bears on notice.
Reggie Nelson, Cincinatti (5-11, 210) Age: 32
Nelson is outstanding in coverage. He allowed just a 50 percent completion percentage last year, while opposing QBs had 61.8 rating against him, which is great. He's 32, so he's on the downslope of his career, but he didn't show any signs of slowing down in 2015. Nelson's veteran experience and coverage acumen would be akin to gold for Chicago's secondary.
Rodney McLeod, Los Angeles (5-10, 195) Age: 26
McLeod has been the starter for the Rams the past four seasons and he's improved each year. He's not spectacular but he's solid in every phase of the game, and he doesn't turn 26 until June. A free safety with range, McLeod has the potential to be a stalwart for the Bears for many years to come.
Walter Thurmond, Philadelphia (5-11, 190) Age: 29
Thurmond was a backup for four years in Seattle, then another in 2014 for the Giants. Yet he was a 16-game starter for the Eagles last season and he took advantage of the opportunity. He was inconsistent in coverage but he was very good in the box. His skill set is similar to that of Adrian Amos, so the Bears will likely pass on Thurmond.
Husain Abdullah, Kansas City (6-0, 204) Age: 31
Abdullah has had a decent seven-year career with the Vikings and Chiefs and played well for 11 games last year before suffering a concussion. He's 31, so age is a concern, but his experience would be very valuable to the Bears.
Isa Abdul-Quddus, Detroit (6-1, 201) Age: 27
A backup his first four years in the NFL, Abdul-Quddus was inserted into Detroit's starting lineup midway through last year and was critical in the Lions' second-half turnaround. He's a strong safety with in-the-box skills who had lapses in coverage last year. He's another Amos clone.
Rashad Johnson, Arizona (5-11, 204) Age: 30
Johnson doesn't offer much in run support but he's nearly as good as a cornerback in coverage. He allowed a 68.2 completion percentage last year, while QBs had 61.0 rating when throwing at him. Johnson's prowess in coverage would complement Amos very well.
Tyvon Branch, Kansas City (6-10, 210) Age: 29
Chris Conte, Tampa Bay (6-2, 203) Age: 27
Louis Delmas, Miami (5-11, 208) Age: 29
Will Allen, Pittsburgh (6-1, 202) Age: 34
Quintin Demps, Houston (5-11, 208) Age: 31
Robert Golden, Pittsburgh (5-11, 202) Age: 25
William Moore, Atlanta (6-0, 221) Age: 31
Tashaun Gipson: The Bears need a safety who can roam centerfield and limit deep balls from opposing passing attacks. Gipson fits that mold, as he's one of the best safeties in the league when the ball is in the air. He can be left on an island in Cover 1 and still make plays on deep passes, as evidenced by his 11 interceptions in 2013 and 2014 combined. At just 26, Gipson would be the long-term answer the Bears need at safety. He won't come cheap but he's worth the investment.
A solid Plan B is Eric Weddle, who still has a few good years left in him. His veteran experience and savvy would help improve the pass defense and run defense, while also giving Amos the guidance he needs at this point in his young career.
If the Bears want to dig a bit deeper for a new safety, then Rashad Johnson is a great option. He's a beast in coverage who can line up and shut down opposign tight ends and wide receivers. Johnson is one-dimensional but his prowess in coverage more than makes up for his deficiencies in run support.