The Chicago Bears have finished in the Top 10 in passing defense each of the past two seasons, yet those rankings are misleading.
The Bears struggled to stop the run in both 2015 (22nd-ranked run defense) and 2016 (27th vs. the run), so opposing offenses did not need to test the secondary on a consistent basis.
When they did, the cracks in Chicago's secondary were all too clear. While opponents haven't been piling up yardage through the air, they've been scoring points nearly at will.
Last season, the Bears allowed 18 passing TDs, which was 6th most in the NFL, while opposing quarterbacks averaged a 93.2 passer rating, which was 10th highest.
Lastly, and most importantly, Chicago's secondary lacks play-makers. The Bears have just 16 interceptions the last two years combined, which is the fewest in the league.
For all these reasons, GM Ryan Pace has stated publicly his desire to upgrade the secondary this off-season. With that in mind, here are the top free-agent safeties that will soon hit the open market.
Eric Berry, Chiefs (Age: 28)
Berry is considered by many to be the best safety in the NFL. Most 28-year-olds at the top of their position don't become unrestricted free agents but Berry's situation is somewhat unique. Kansas City used the franchise tag on him last year, basically telling Berry to prove he deserved a long-term deal, which did not sit well with him. Now -- coming off a 2016 campaign in which he had 77 tackles, four interceptions, two return touchdowns and a forced fumble, while once again serving as the leader of a Chiefs that led the league in total takeaways -- Berry has said he will not play under the tag for a second straight year. That could be problematic for the Chiefs, who may have less than $5 million in cap space to start free agency. If Berry hits the open market, Pace needs to put on the full-court press to sign him. He'll probably cost around $12 million per season but for an elite player in his prime, who plays a position that has been a team weakness in Chicago for more than a decade, the price tag isn't concerning.
Tony Jefferson, Cardinals (25)
Jefferson took his game to the next level last season, his first as a full-time starter in Arizona. He ended 2016 with 98 tackles, 2.0 sacks, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Jefferson is an in-the-box safety who excels in run support. He's provides a physical presence and he's a sure tackler. He isn't a huge play-maker in coverage -- he has just two career interceptions in four NFL seasons -- but he has forced six total fumbles the last three years. He's also a very effective blitzer, with 5.0 sacks since 2014. Jefferson is only 25 and is about to enter his prime, so he won't come cheap, but if Pace feels last year was a sign of things to come for Jefferson, he could make a run at him.
John Cyprien, Jaguars (27)
Cyprien is a former second-round pick who has started all but four games during his four-year career. He's been a tackling machine in Jacksonville, accumulating 100 or more tackles in each season, topping out last season with 127 combined tackles. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Cyprien graded as the top run defender at his position in 2016. While he would immediately upgrade Chicago's run defense, Cyprien is nothing special in coverage, the area in which the Bears need help the most.
Barry Church, Cowboys (29)
Church is one of the most consistent safeties in the NFL and he's coming off one of the best seasons of his seven-year career. Church is a plus defender in the box and also possesses the coverage ability to man up with some of the league's best tight ends and running backs. He would also upgrade the locker room. Church missed four games last season but just one game total the previous three years combined, so he's durable. He'll soon turn 29, so he's not a long-term answer, but if Dallas let's Church walk, the Bears could do a lot worse on a two-year deal.
Jahleel Addae, Chargers (27)
Addae was very good in 2016, his second season as a full-time starter for the Chargers. He missed eight games due to a broken collarbone but graded very well against both the run and pass when on the field. Of all the safeties on this list, only Berry and D.J. Swearinger (see below) graded higher than Addae in coverage last season. He picked up his first career interception last year, which he returned 90 yards for a TD. Addae just turned 27 in January and would be an outstanding veteran option for the Bears, one who would immediately upgrade the pass defense.
T.J. McDonald, Rams (26)
A former third-round pick, McDonald has started every game of his four-year career with the Rams (53 total). McDonald is a solid cover safety and was used extensively as a blitzer last season, rushing the quarterback 86 times in 2016, which led all NFL safeties by a wide margin. He has four interceptions, one forced fumble and 5.0 sacks during his career, and he's coming off a year in which he broke up six passes. McDonald has a lot of experience for a 26-year-old and, while he isn't tough against the run, his presence in coverage makes him worth a decent investment.
D.J. Swearinger, Cardinals (26)
Swearinger is a former second-round pick who flamed out quickly after two seasons in Houston. He played for two teams in 2015, then emerged as a legitimate NFL starter for the Cardinals last year. He's a downhill defender who hits hard but his over-aggressiveness against the run can lead to missed tackles. Still, Swearinger adds a physical presence as a run defender and he excels in coverage. PFF graded him the 5th best coverage safety in the NFL last year. As a 26-year-old pure free safety, Swearinger checks off a lot of needs for the Bears.
Bradley McDougald, Buccaneers (26)
McDougald is an average NFL starting safety, and there's nothing wrong with that. He's decent against the run and has play-making ability in coverage, as evidenced by his combined 21 pass breakups and five interceptions the last three years as a starter. McDougald could be a solid, economical option for the Bears.
J.J. Wilcox, Cowboys (26)
Mike Adams, Colts (36)
Quintin Demps, Texans (32)
Rashad Johnson, Titans (31)
Duron Harmon, Patriots (26)
Matt Elam, Ravens (26)
Will Hill, Ravens (27)
Jordan Poyer, Browns (26)
The Pick: Jahleel Addae
As this list shows, there are a bevy of good, young NFL safeties about to hit the open market. You can't go wrong with Berry, Jefferson, Cyprien, Addae, McDonald or Swearinger, all of whom are 28 or younger.
If Berry becomes available, he's the ideal option due to his presence in coverage and on-field leadership. That said, there's a strong chance the Chiefs will find a way to retain arguably the best safety in the league.
The choice then becomes Addae due to his all-around skill set, which includes being one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL. The Chargers will do their best to retain Addae but he would immediately help solve some of the secondary issues in Chicago.
If Addae re-signs in Los Angeles, then Pace can move on to Jefferson (25), Cyprien (27), McDonald (26) or Swearinger (26). Given the amount of money the Bears will have to spend in free agency, there's no reason at least one of these young, experienced safeties shouldn't be playing in the navy and orange next season and beyond.null