Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix

Which safeties could the Bears pursue to replace Ha Ha Clinton-Dix?

Which safeties could the Bears pursue to replace Ha Ha Clinton-Dix?

The Bears defense, unlike the offense, isn't in disrepair. It doesn't need a facelift nor does it need a big-name splash signing in free agency.

But there are several tough decisions general manager Ryan Pace has to make this offseason that will directly impact the starting lineup on that side of the ball. The salary cap will play a big factor in several of those choices, which include deciding between Nick Kwiatkoski and Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker, whether to keep cornerback Prince Amukamara for another season, and how much is too much to pay safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who reset his market value with a successful first season in Chicago.

There are two factors working against the Bears realistically bringing Clinton-Dix back in 2020. First, Pace doesn't have much salary-cap space to work with. According to Over The Cap, the Bears have $7.7 million in cap space after the Eddie Jackson contract extension, which is the second variable in the case against Clinton-Dix returning. Will the Bears invest top dollar in two safeties? It doesn't seem like a sound strategy, especially with bigger needs at more expensive positions like quarterback and offensive line.

Clinton-Dix finished 2019 with a 74.2 grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranked 30th among all safeties. He's a legitimate NFL starter who lived up to his first-round grade as a collegiate prospect in 2014. He's going to several suitors on the open market, and as a result, the Bears need to be prepared with a backup plan in case No. 21 isn't lining up alongside Jackson next fall.

Here are three players Pace should consider in free agency if Clinton-Dix leaves town.

Karl Joseph (Raiders)

Joseph played in just nine games in 2019 because of a season-ending foot injury suffered in Week 10. The injury could force him to take a one-year prove-it deal much like Clinton-Dix did last offseason, which gives the Bears a chance to strike again. Joseph had 48 tackles and one interception in his nine games and would bring the kind of hitter's mentality Chicago's secondary was missing last season.

Jeff Heath (Cowboys)

Heath isn't a sexy name, and his play is uninspiring at times. But he's an experienced player who's started 44 games over the last three seasons. He finished 2019 with 59 tackles and seven passes defended. His salary demands should be in line with what the Bears are willing to spend if Clinton-Dix is priced out of their budget.

Vonn Bell (Saints)

Bell started 13 games for the Saints in 2019 and has 45 starts over the last four years in New Orleans. He missed three games last season with a knee injury, but finished the year as Pro Football Focus' highest-graded run-defending safety.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on 2019: 'This was one of my best years as a pro'

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on 2019: 'This was one of my best years as a pro'

Bears safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was one of the team's biggest bargains in 2019. At a salary of just $3 million, he played like the first-round star he was coming out of Alabama in 2014. He took a big step toward rewriting the underwhelming narrative that's haunted his career so far.

At the very least, he's reset his market value heading into free agency.

Clinton-Dix will be one of general manager Ryan Pace's most difficult challenges this offseason. His salary could easily triple on the open market and for a team with very little wiggle room under the salary cap, retaining Clinton-Dix won't be easy.

Fortunately, the Bears have an intangible variable that extends beyond contract negotiations: Eddie Jackson.

“I would love to play with this guy for the rest of my career," Clinton-Dix said of Jackson Monday via the Chicago Sun-Times. "If he’s not here, I’ll go wherever he goes. But this is a crazy business. You never know what’s gonna happen.”

Clinton-Dix ended his first season with the Bears second in total snaps played, third in tackles and with the second-highest PFF grade on defense for players who logged at least 300 snaps. 

“I think this was one of my best years as a pro,” Clinton-Dix said. “The guys around me made this year simple for me.”

What won't be simple is having the dollars make sense in Clinton-Dix's next contract. It'll either work or it won't, but it isn't something the veteran safety is focusing on as the offseason kicks off.

“I’ll worry about the future later,” he said.

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It's a big week for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to reflect – both on the past and the future

It's a big week for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to reflect – both on the past and the future

As media members congregated (see: aggressively ran) toward Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s corner locker, the Bears’ locker room burst to life. Anthony Miller and Allen Robinson, only a few feet away, started laughing and giving the safety a hard time for talking with so many cameras. Fellow safety Eddie Jackson stood just behind the scrum, jumping up and down to try to distract him. Tarik Cohen – and about 20 unidentified others – could be heard yelling “Ha Ha” as Clinton-Dix started fielding the first questions. 

“The vibe in this locker room is great,” he said with a grin. “The guys in here are pumped up, man. We’re just excited about the game coming up this week.”

It’s Packers Week for everyone, but the lead-up to Sunday’s game is probably a little bit different for Clinton-Dix – whether he’ll admit it publicly or not. He was drafted by Green Bay back in 2014 and played there for four-and-a-half seasons. It’s where he was given Charles Woodson’s number, and where he made his only Pro Bowl (2016) so far. Sunday will be the first time he’s back, and homecomings always mean a little extra, right?

“Not a damn thing,” Clinton-Dix said, keeping a half-convincing poker face. It didn’t last long. 

“I’m just kidding, man,” he added. “It means a lot to be able to go back and play against guys that I’ve been with for the past five years. Getting to compete against your friends makes things more fun and more competitive.” 

“I'm sure he'll be fired up,” Matt Nagy added. 

It’ll be the first time he’s played in Green Bay since being traded, and Clinton-Dix has already shown a knack for getting revenge on old teams. In the Bears’ Week 3 win over Washington, he had a touchdown, two interceptions, and two passes deflected. If that sort of performance comes against a team he played nine games for, imagine what he could do against a team he played for eight times as long. 

“If [Aaron Rodgers] decides to bless me and throw me the ball twice, I’ll be happy as hell,” he said. “Unfortunately [he] doesn’t work that way. He’s the best quarterback in the game, and we just have to go execute and make big plays.” 

Clinton-Dix swears he harbors no ill will towards Green Bay, and says he’s under no illusions about the business side of professional football. According to him, he’s merely happy to have already suited up for two of the league’s flagship organizations. 

“Green Bay and Chicago are two of the most prestigious organizations in the business,” he said. “Top-quality places to play. I’m blessed to be able to play for both.” 

There’s another business decision rapidly headed his way, though one he’s a bit more in control of. Clinton-Dix will be a free agent at the end of the season, and has clearly played well enough to earn more than the one-year, $3 million contract that the Bears’ signed him to as a prove-it deal. Even if some of the advanced metrics would disagree with his improved-season narrative, he’s put enough good plays on tape to warrant a longer-term deal. The Bears aren’t swimming in cap space and have the other star safety from Alabama to take care of, so the odds of running it back in 2020 don’t look great. But, as Clinton-Dix was quick to remind the eager media scrum, that’s a bridge to cross after Packers Week, and Chiefs Week, and Vikings Week. 

“Only thing I can reflect on is these next three games,” he said. “I’m going to give you the media answer, but I’m excited about this game. I can’t express it any more.” 

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