Bears

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Bears just can’t seem to settle safety positions

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Bears just can’t seem to settle safety positions

CSNChicago.com Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position-by-position as the Bears approach the 2016 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need, and what draft day and after could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

When the Bears secured veteran safety Antrel Rolle early last offseason, then struck gold with Adrian Amos as their fifth-round draft choice, the turbulence that has plagued the Bears at safety appeared to be quieting. But then Rolle, who had missed just one game in nine NFL seasons, was hobbled by ankle and knee injuries that left him inactive for nine games.

The injuries had the Bears scrambling for alternatives, starting Harold Jones-Quartey in four games and Chris Prosinski in five, with decidedly mixed results. The Bears are set with Amos at one safety spot, and with Jones-Quartey and Prosinski as depth, but Rolle at age 33 (34 in December) is nearing a fork in his road, although the hope is he can get in touch with his inner Charles Woodson.

“It was a difficult [post-season] evaluation on him because of the [knee] injury,” GM Ryan Pace said at last month’s NFL owners meetings. “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the evaluation on him with him being injury but we were satisfied.”

How satisfied is a significant question. Rolle is due $2.7 million in 2016, not a cap-breaker, and the Bears did not cut ties early in free agency as teams sometimes do out of respect for veterans no longer in the plan. But the Bears will not start training camp or the regular season without added insurance, particularly at a position very much involved on special teams.

Bears draft priority: Low/moderate

With added picks in rounds four and six, the Bears will begin the draft with excellent options in the range where bargains at safety can be had (see: Amos). The Bears have a need in the position area, just not at the level of some others. The draft class is adequate, meaning not a lot of, if any, first-rounders, leaving possibilities in the range the Bears may be shopping.

If there’s a problem it is in that something in the water at Halas Hall has skewed evaluations of safety prospects. Over the past 15 years or so, some have come in third rounds (Brandon Hardin, Chris Conte, Major Wright), some have come in fourths (Brock Vereen, Craig Steltz, Todd Johnson), some have come in fifths (Amos, Kevin Payne, Bobby Gray), some have come in sixths (Al Afalava, Chris Harris).

But very few from the seemingly endless list have amounted to enough beyond the occasional Amos or Conte or Harris, usually for a year or two. The Bears project more than that for Amos, and they hope for whomever else they add to that list this draft.

Consensus is that the safety class is less than stellar “but there’s more depth in this class than people are preaching,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who added that as many as 10 safeties could be selected in the draft’s first three rounds.

Keep an eye on ...

Vonn Bell, Ohio State: Solid pass defender rather than just a box player. Had nine interceptions, eight over last two years, plus 15 pass breakups. Could fit at CB with coverage skills.

Karl Joseph, West Virginia: Among best cover safeties in the class before tearing his ACL mid-2015. Four-year starter who went against Kevin White in practice; possible bargain late. “Joseph is the most complete safety in the draft,” McShay said.

Jayron Kearse, Clemson: Had seven interceptions in three seasons, with strong a strong 2014 season and size (213 pounds) to be a Kam Chancellor type.

Elijah Shumate, Notre Dame: Physical tackler (136 over last two seasons) with size (6-0, 210). Not a top cover safety but may be ideal fit as nickel LB.

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

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USA TODAY

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

When John Fox succeeded Marc Trestman in 2015, neither he nor the Bears were looking at the situation and Fox as any sort of “bridge” hire – a de facto interim coach tasked with winning, but just as importantly, developing and getting a team turned around and headed in a right direction.

The heart of the matter is always winning, but in the overall, the mission statement also includes leaving the place better than you found it. Fox did that, which is very clearly the sentiment upstairs at Halas Hall as the Bears move on from Fox to Matt Nagy.

“It would’ve been nice to see it through,” Fox said to NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s kind of a bitter pill but you sort things out and move forward.

“I do think it’s closer than people think. We inherited a mess... but I felt we were on the brink at the end. I think that [Halas Hall] building is definitely different; they feel it. I do think that it was a positive.”

(Fox is probably not done coaching at some point, but that’s for another time, another story, and anyway, it’s his tale to tell when he feels like it. Or doesn’t.)

One measure of the Bears change effected: Virtually the entire Trestman staff, with the exceptions of receivers coach Mike Groh and linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, was jettisoned along with Trestman. By contrast, Nagy has retained not only virtually the entire Fox defensive staff under coordinator Vic Fangio, but also arguably the single most important non-coordinator offensive coach by virtue of position responsibility – Dave Ragone, the hands-on mentor of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Obvious but extremely difficult decisions are coming, as to shedding personnel and contracts – Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young being among the most difficult because of tangible intangibles that no organization wants to lose.

“Bridge” results

Fox was never intended as a bridge coach but the results point to that function having been served. To exactly what end remains to play out under Nagy and the quarterback whom Ragone and Fox’s handling began developing.

Rick Renteria was one of those “bridge” guys for the Cubs, intended to be part of pulling out of or at least arresting the slide into the Mike Quade-Dale Sveum abyss, and leaving something for Joe Maddon. The late Vince Lombardi effectively served as that, at age 56 and for an unforeseen one-year for a Washington Redskins organization that’d gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi’s 1969 and needed a radical reversal. The culture change was realized over the next decade under George Allen and Jack Pardee, much of the success coming with the same players with whom Washington had languished before the culture change.

The Bears were in that state after the two years of Trestman and the three years of GM Phil Emery, certain of whose character-lite veteran player acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall) and high-character launchings (Brian Urlacher) had left a palpable pall over Halas Hall. A Fox goal was to eradicate that, which insiders in Lake Forest say privately was accomplished even amid the catastrophic crush of three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, and with injuries at historic levels.

What happens next is in the hands of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, after a third John Fox franchise turnaround failed to materialize. Or did it? Because much of the core, from Trubisky through the defensive makeover, came on Fox’s watch, like him or not.

“You wish some things would’ve happened differently obviously,” Fox said, “but there was a lot positive that happened.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman.