The Monsters of the Midway have neglected both safety positions for entirely too long, first waiting for Mike Brown to finally make it through an entire year healthy and then not making an effort to replace him after his departure last offseason.
With a plethora of young strong safety candidates on the roster, Al Afalava appears to have the brightest future and put together a commendable rookie campaign in 2009. However, over at free safety, Danieal Manning just can't be trusted as an every-down option, neither Kevin Payne nor Craig Steltz has the coverage skills to be effective on passing downs and Josh Bullocks may depart as a free agent just as quickly as he arrived. Charles Tillman could be a solid free safety if given the opportunity, but a thin depth chart at cornerback likely takes that move out of the equation.
With no selections in the 2010 NFL Draft before Round 3 and a laundry list of needs to address, general manager Jerry Angelo may have to get serious in free agency and target one of the top veterans on the open market:
Largely ignored in free agency 12 months ago despite highly-decorated stops in both Green Bay and Minnesota, Sharper helped changed the attitude of the entire New Orleans defense immediately and was a key figure in bringing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the Crescent City for the first time in franchise history. While he may not be the physical specimen he used to be, he is one of the smarter defensive backs in the league and a natural leader in the locker room.
The Saints are already on record saying they will restructure quarterback Drew Brees' deal before next season, so if they also plan on keeping Sharper, they may have to employ the franchise tag and guarantee him $6.46 million.
Missing the second half of last season on injured reserve with a broken thumb, Phillips is a solid tackler and doesn't mind sticking his nose in there to help defend the run, but his coverage skills are adequate at best and limited his effectiveness when playing Tampa Bay's version of the Cover 2, until the scheme was scrapped after 2008. While he has good size, adequate straight-line speed and excellent athleticism, he is simply not a playmaker as evidenced by just four interceptions, eight passes defensed and zero forced fumbles in 84 career NFL games.
Compare that to Tanard Jackson, who replaced Allen in the starting lineup at free safety as a rookie in 2007 and has eight INTs, 24 PDs and four FFs in 44 contests.
Even though Phillips has many fine attributes as a player, especially the way he defends the run and can really lay the lumber to enemy ball carriers, he has always been a better in-the-box defender and doesn't look comfortable away from the line of scrimmage. The extra bulk he brings to the table makes him a little stiff in the hips and robs him of proper closing speed, and he's not instinctive enough recognizing routes and reading the QB's eyes to make up the difference.
The last thing the Bears need is another safety that can only play the strong position, as they already have enough of those with Afalava, Payne and Steltz.
Conclusion: Without the draft-pick compensation needed to make a play for five-star restricted free agents like Oshiomogho Atogwe of the Rams or Antoine Bethea of the Colts, Angelo would be wise to jump on Sharper this time if New Orleans decides not to franchise him.
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
Free Agency Fix: Vet Safety Needed
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