Prince Amukamara

Bears secondary ranked as one of league's most underrated position groups

Bears secondary ranked as one of league's most underrated position groups

Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller had a breakout season in 2017. It was a prove-it year for the former first-round pick, and he delivered in a big way. He parlayed his career-best season into a four-year, $56 million deal and is now considered one of the NFL's top corners.

He's not the only high-end performer in Chicago's secondary, however. Safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson arrived as one of the league's top young safety tandems, and veteran Prince Amukamara did enough opposite Fuller to receive a multi-year deal this offseason.

Entering 2018, the Bears may have one of the most overlooked secondaries in the NFL. In fact, that's exactly what The Ringer's Danny Kelly declared in a recent story about the NFL's most unheralded position groups.

"Most of the hype around the Bears’ eventful offseason has focused on the team’s new head coach, Matt Nagy, its offensive skill-position reboot (headlined by the signing of Allen Robinson), and the potential growth of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky," Kelly wrote. "But don’t lose sight of what the team did to keep its burgeoning secondary intact."

The biggest challenge facing the Bears' defensive backs is the fact they'll be challenged by three top-tier quarterbacks in the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer while Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford are perennial Pro Bowlers. Fuller, Amukamara and the rest of the starters will need a big assist from Leonard Floyd and the pass rush.

The Bears are going to need to get more from their pass rush next year, and the team’s defensive backs will simply have to make more plays on the ball after intercepting just eight passes all of last year (tied for 29th). But Chicago’s unheralded secondary unit looks poised for more recognition in 2018.

Fuller proved last season that he's a true lockdown defender. He recorded two interceptions and a career-high 17 passes defended. He set a new career-best in tackles, too, with 66. His 84.3 grade from Pro Football Focus ranked 21st among cornerbacks and was yet another career watermark.

Assuming Fuller stays healthy and has another top-tier season, and the young safeties develop as expected, the Bears' secondary has as good of a chance as any to be considered one of the elite position units in the NFL by season's end.

Sizing up the Bears' defensive depth chart with an eye on the NFL Draft

Sizing up the Bears' defensive depth chart with an eye on the NFL Draft

While most of the focus this offseason has been on the Bears’ re-vamped offense, Vic Fangio's group returns almost all of its starters from last year's group, which ranked 10th in total defense and a respectable 14th in defensive DVOA. But Fangio doesn't want to settle for just a "solid" or "good" defense in 2018, as he explained back in January: 

"We were 5-11," Fangio said. "If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins. There’s a lot of room for improvement there, a lot, and we need to do that."

The Bears will enter 2018 with a few standouts on this side of the ball, most notably Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Kyle Fuller. But those players still have room for improvement, too, as do guys like Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson and Jonathan Bullard, among others. 

That being said, the NFL Draft later this month will likely see the Bears add a number of players to Fangio's defense. So with that in mind, what does the current depth chart look like, and does that provide any clues about the direction in which Ryan Pace will go come late April?

Defensive end

1. Akiem Hicks
2. Roy Roberston-Harris

1. Jonathan Bullard

As things stand, the Bears at least need one more reserve defensive lineman to slide behind and/or compete with Bullard, the team’s 2016 third-round pick who showed flashes of starting to “get it” in Fangio’s defense last year. Mitch Unrein’s departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was somewhat surprising, given how highly Fangio and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers spoke of his play.

But let’s not confuse a defensive end opposite Hicks as a major “need,” given that Bullard in Year 3 should be better and, for as well-regarded as Unrein was, he only played 48 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps in 2017. Using a mid- or late-round pick on a defensive end may make sense later this month. 

Defesive tackle

1. Eddie Goldman
2. Rashaad Coward

Perhaps the Bears look to add a backup beyond Coward, who only played in one game last year, though John Jenkins — Goldman’s primary backup — was inactive for half of the season. 

But the biggest question here is when Goldman and the Bears will agree to a contract extension. The Bears have the cap space to sign Goldman to a second contract, and his pairing with Akiem Hicks was the top strength of Fangio’s defense in 2017. There’s no reason to think that partnership will be anything but excellent again going forward. 

“We haven’t got to that yet,” Pace said when asked about an extension for Goldman. “We’re aware of it, but we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

Outside linebacker

1. Leonard Floyd
2. Isaiah Irving

1. Aaron Lynch
2. Sam Acho

No position is a bigger red-line need than outside linebacker. There’s plenty of boom-or-bust potential here: If Floyd can stay healthy and take a step forward in his third year in the NFL, and if Lynch seizes his opportunity on a prove-it contract in a familiar defense, the Bears could have a solid pass rush in 2018. But those are two massive ifs. 

Floyd has missed 10 games his first two years in the league, and even when he’s been healthy he’s averaging one sack every 97 snaps (for some context, Vic Beasley is averaging one sack per 69 snaps in his three-year career; Pernell McPhee averaged one sack per 81 snaps from 2011-2017). The Bears drafted Floyd to be a pass rushing difference-maker; so far, he hasn’t been that. 

Lynch notched six sacks his rookie year in Fangio’s San Francisco 49ers defense, and followed that up with 6 1/2 sacks in 2015. But a substance abuse suspension and an ankle injury limited Lynch to just seven games in 2016, with only 1 1/2 sacks to his name. His 2017 wasn’t much better, with one sack in seven games as he had some conditioning and weight issues. 

“This free agency we didn't feel like there was a ton of outside linebackers but Aaron Lynch stood out in a number of ways,” Pace said. “He definitely has the traits to be a very productive pass rusher, you see signs of it and he's very comfortable in Vic's scheme. Vic knows him inside and out so to get him here on kind of a one-year contract kind of in a motivated state, we're excited about that. We think there's a lot of upside in that transaction.”

The Bears will need to draft at least one edge rusher, maybe multiple to try to fill out this position. Acho provides solid depth and leadership, hitting on a productive outside linebacker in the draft is a must for this group. 

Inside linebacker

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu

1. Nick Kwiatkoski
2. Jonathan Anderson

Christian Jones’ departure to the Detroit Lions felt sort of like Unrein’s to Tampa, as he too was a solid piece appreciate by the coaching staff and front office. That leaves, for now, Kwiatkoski to be the starter next to Trevathan. The Bears could certainly do worse, though Kwiatkoski missed two games in 2016 and five in 2017, and Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013. 

So there’s a need here for at least a backup, and potentially a starting-caliber player. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith both could be options with the eighth overall pick, as could drafting an inside linebacker with the Bears’ second-round pick. Or the Bears could opt for more of a reserve player profile and draft an inside linebacker in the fourth round (where Kwiatkoski was picked in 2016) or the fifth round. Inside linebacker is in a better position depth-wise than outside linebacker, but there’s still a need here. 

Outside cornerback

1. Kyle Fuller
2. Marcus Cooper

1. Prince Amukamara
2. Jonathan Mincy

Nickel cornerback

1. Bryce Callahan
2. Cre’von LeBlanc

The Bears reportedly have hosted or will host Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson for pre-draft visits, but don’t read too much into those. While the Bears guaranteed Fuller and Amukamara a combined $36 million in free agency (and will almost certainly wind up committing at least $37.5 million against the cap for Fuller over the next three years), they’d be foolish to not use their allocated pre-draft visits on two of the best cornerbacks in this year’s draft class. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, who could be a corner or a safety, will also reportedly be hosted by the Bears for a visit. 

While Amukamara and Fuller proved to be a solid cornerback tandem in 2017, they only combined for two interceptions, both of which were Fuller’s and came in the final month of the season. Drafting a playmaking cornerback would be a surprise — Fitzpatrick makes the most sense out of that group given he can play anywhere in the secondary — but it wouldn’t be totally out of left field, either. 

Maintaining the status quo of Amukamara and Fuller, with Cooper the backup and then a cornerback drafted maybe with a mid-round pick would make plenty of sense, though. Callahan remains a restricted free agent, but seems likely to return in 2018. 

“To have continuity at the two starting corner positions you know is important, and the safety position really too,” Pace said. “(For a) top 10 defense to maintain that continuity in the secondary was huge for us and it's really two separate moves. Independently getting Prince back and getting Kyle back, we feel good about our secondary. I don't think you can ever have enough corners, or enough pass rushers, but we feel good about that starting lineup for sure.”

Safety

1. Adrian Amos
2. DeAndre Houston-Carson

1. Eddie Jackson
2. Deon Bush

Pace’s quote above applies here — for the first time in a long time, the Bears can confidently say they’re comfortable with continuity at the safety position. Amos and Jackson played well off each other last year, and the loss of Quintin Demps to a season-ending injury in Week 3 didn’t negatively impact this unit. DeAndre Houston-Carson and Deon Bush are both mainstays on special teams — Houston-Carson played 64 percent of the Bears’ special teams snaps last year, while Bush played 53 percent of them. 

Perhaps there’s room for a safety to be a late-round pick, but that would be just for depth or special teams contributions. 

Special teams

Placekicker: Cody Parkey
Punter: Pat O’Donnell
Long snapper: Patrick Scales
Captain: Sherrick McManis

The Bears only guarantee O’Donnell $500,000 of his one-year, $1.5 million deal, according to Spotrac, suggesting they could look to bring in some competition for him via a late-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent. Scales was brought back after missing 2017 with a torn ACL. McManis was an important player to re-sign, and will be back for his seventh year in Chicago. 

“He’s one of our best special teams player,” Pace said. “He’s a valuable depth player on defense. But then also from a very critical standpoint, the intangibles he brings and the leadership he brings on a relatively young team. He’s a guy who has some skins on the wall, is a productive special teams player but also has excellent makeup.”

Why Prince Amukamara thinks Allen Robinson is exactly who the Bears needed

Why Prince Amukamara thinks Allen Robinson is exactly who the Bears needed

Highlight reels posted to social media are an easily-sharable way to get excited about a player in mid-March, when the first games of the 2018 NFL season are still nearly half a year away. But a different, and maybe better, way to judge a player is by how he practices: That influences not only what he can put on those highlight reels, but how he’s perceived and accepted by his coaches and teammates. 

Prince Amukamara had a first-hand look at Allen Robinson’s practice habits in 2016, when the two were teammates with the Jacksonville Jaguars. And the Bears’ cornerback, who inked a three-year deal on Wednesday, came away impressed. 

“Allen Robinson was a nightmare in practice, and I say that in the best way possible,” Amukamara said. "He’s very, very competitive. If he makes a play, he’s going to let you know it, and he just works extremely hard."

What makes Robinson such a difficult matchup, Amukamara explained, is his elite athleticism to pair with his 6-foot-3, 220 pound frame. Even if a cornerback feels like he’s covering Robinson well, he can go up and get passes with a large catch radius that can’t be defended. 

And even more promising, as Amukamara sees it, is Robinson’s youth and his potential for growth. That 2016 season was a “down” year, as it compared to Robinson’s 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown 2015 season, with 73 catches for 883 yards and six touchdowns. But Amukamara sees a higher ceiling for Robinson, and said he’s an ideal fit for the Bears’ offense. 

“He’s so raw, he’s super young and I think he’s definitely what this team needs,” Amukamara said. “He’s a big-play guy. Not too long ago, he was one of the leaders in touchdowns and yards in this league and I know he’s excited to get back to that.”