BOURBONNAIS — Ryan Pace was busy this offseason boosting the Bears. At least he hopes the additions he’s made will end up classified as upgrades.
Perhaps nowhere — other than the quarterback position, of course — did the Bears receive a bigger makeover than the secondary, a response to what has seemed like a few years’ worth of problems.
Last season, it was the team’s jaw-dropping lack of interceptions, only eight on the campaign, a number better than just one other NFL team (Jacksonville Jaguars) and one which came as a shock to those who remember the turnover-heavy heyday of Lovie Smith’s old defenses. It was a big enough problem to ignore the fact that the pass-defense numbers weren’t all bad: The Bears ranked seventh in the NFL with just 225 passing yards allowed per game.
To rectify that situation, there are three new starters in that secondary, all bringing with them some veteran experience. Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper are the new projected starters at cornerback, and it’s hoped that newly acquired safety Quintin Demps will anchor the unit after he came away with six interceptions last season with the Houston Texans.
The new-starter count could even reach four if someone beats out Adrian Amos for the starting spot at safety next to Demps. Eddie Jackson, a fourth-round draft pick out of Alabama, is one of a few candidates, along with Amos, who started 14 games last season. Deon Bush (six starts in 2016) and Harold Jones-Quartey (12 starts) are in the mix, too.
But will it all pay off? Will all those offseason investments, be they in the form of dollars or draft choices, do what Pace & Co. want them to do?
“Last year is done,” Demps said Thursday. “So we’re moving forward. I’m going forward with today. Today we looked good. We’re all young — I mean, I consider myself young, too, but the guys are young and we’re just trying to stack days up, get better each and every day.”
Last season, Demps had just two fewer interceptions than the Bears did as a team, so by signing him, the Bears hoped to fill a very particular need. Of course, there’s plenty more value to a guy who’s been to six postseasons, including each of the last two down in Houston.
“Quintin Demps, he’s a veteran guy who had a heck of a year getting the football,” Bears defensive backs coach Ed Donatell said Friday. “We were below our standard getting the ball last year, so we needed to bring somebody in who has found it, and he’s found it recently. He’s good, he brings a veteran calmness to our secondary, which is important.”
[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]
The big question, though, is who will line up next to Demps when the regular season starts.
Injuries and inconsistencies forced a few names into starting safety roles last season. With one of the spots on lockdown with the signing of Demps, the other has become one of the most talked-about battles of camp.
Amos obviously has the carryover from 2016, when he started all but two games, and Donatell said he sees a new drive in the third-year man out of Penn State.
“He’s kind of rededicated himself. I see a little hungrier guy right now who’s very focused, so look for good things to happen with him,” Donatell said. “He’s been a good tackler for us and a tough guy. He wants to improve his ball production.”
But those displeased with the Bears teams of years past are hoping to see a new name in that spot. Jackson, bringing the experience of playing for Nick Saban in college football’s most dominant program, has many supporters, but will he be healthy enough to catch up? He didn’t participate in OTAs while still recovering from the broken leg he suffered in the middle of last season.
“Eddie Jackson, he’s working through an injury, he was, and now he’s finally full right here,” Donatell said. “He came out of as high-level football you can play in college football, and he’s been in all those big games and he’s been coached in a really good program. So that will help him transition here. So far he’s primed. When he gets his shots, time will tell in preseason. We’ll see what he’s got.”
Donatell talked about big-picture type things he and the other Bears coaches need to see at this point in a preseason position battle, such as mastery of the system and showing competitive spirit.
But with that safety position and the three others in the secondary, the Bears would like to see something that they didn’t see too much of last season: interceptions. Demps can help, but it needs to be a secondary-wide improvement, as Demps himself spoke about.
“You’ve got to have a turnover circuit, it’s got to be part of your resume,” he said. “You’ve got to work on it. In practice it’d be stripping the ball, it ain’t all about interceptions, you’ve got to work at getting the ball out and then running to the ball and flying around, and it’ll come to you.
“I don’t think turnovers come by one guy. It’s the unit, they come as a unit. We’ve got to communicate, we’ve got to do our job, we’ve got to fly to the ball. Then they’re going to come to us, not just me but then to everybody. We’ve got to spread it around.”
That’s the goal during camp, the preseason and the regular season. And it might eventually be the measure of whether this secondary makeover was a success.