I tend to be very upfront with where I stand on team building. Quarterbacks, running backs are replaceable, and most frequently, defenses should be built from the front to the back. This is due to the emphasis on pass rush in today’s aerial-oriented game.
However, that doesn’t mean defensive backs have lost their value in the NFL, in fact, they do one of the more important jobs on the field. And for a three or four year period after Lovie Smith was fired and even into John Fox’s tenure, the Bears had a decidedly poor excuse for a secondary and it was a big reason why they didn’t win too many games during that time span.
Last year, however, the Bears may have turned a corner. The rejuvenation of a former first-round draft pick, a solid low-risk signing, and the emergence of a promising young safety duo has turned the defensive backfield into an above average unit.
A few question marks still remain. Could the Bears’ secondary take another step in their players’ progression in 2018? Or was last season a mere matter of chance and this group is destined to return to futility?
I will explore all of that and more in the eighth and final installment of a series of positional previews leading up to the opening of the Bears’ training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois on July 21.
Wait a minute. Today is July 21! Happy training camp, everybody!
Projected depth chart
I hesitate to give too much credit to Ryan Pace for the secondary’s renaissance, and here’s why: half of it was not supposed to even start based on the team’s 2017 offseason moves. Marcus Cooper was signed to start, and he played solid football until his heinous monstrosity of a lapse in judgment against Pittsburgh, at which point his play proceeded to fall off a cliff and he became one with the bench. Ditto Quintin Demps, who performed poorly before succumbing to season-ending injury.
In stepped Amos and Fuller, who rebounded from their poor and nonexistent (respectively) 2016 campaigns. Fuller earned himself a rich contract extension courtesy of Green Bay and matched by Chicago and Amos, though he is nowhere near as good as Pro Football Focus thinks he is, established himself as a quality starting strong safety.
Here’s where I will give Pace his due: he stole Amos in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and stuck by Kyle Fuller in giving him a roster spot even though a large portion of the fanbase (including, admittedly, myself – thanks for proving me wrong, Kyle) was ready to give up on him. He also embezzled Eddie Jackson in the fourth round in 2017, who took the starting job originally intended for Amos and ran with it, scoring two defensive touchdowns and accounting for five takeaways on the season.
Amukamara was also a solid Pace pickup, signing a one year deal last season and receiving a three-year extension in March. Callahan was a find in undrafted free agency who drew some interest as a restricted free agent this offseason but ultimately stayed with Chicago on a one year tender and will start camp in the nickel cornerback role, which in 2018 is a starting job.
Here’s where it gets tricky. McManis and Houston-Carson have clear roles on the team due to their special teams prowess and should make the roster, barring injury. No one else is guaranteed anything, from Cooper all the way down to Tolliver and Mincy, an undrafted free agent out of LSU and a CFL signing respectively, which brings me to…
Key training camp battle – the fight for backup spots
The Bears will, in my view, hold an open competition for their reserve spots at both cornerback and safety. Cooper likely starts camp in position to take one, after being cut then resigned to a much cheaper deal in March, but if he underperforms his role can be taken by someone like Tolliver, who had enough talent to be drafted but got passed up due to off the field issues.
Mincy was an intriguing signing out of the CFL who should be less disastrous than the last time the Bears took somebody from the Montreal Alouettes. He was offered a contract by multiple teams but chose Chicago. LeBlanc had a bit of a rough season in 2017 but is a hard worker and could bounce back and claim a roster spot.
Even at safety, Bush and Hall should be in a dogfight for the last of four places behind Jackson, Amos, and Houston-Carson. In any back of the roster battle, it should be remembered that anyone who finds a way to contribute on special teams has an immediate advantage. That could very well be the difference in any of these competitions.
Keys to success
1. Avoid regression
The Bears are counting on Amos and Fuller to repeat their 2017 seasons, or at least play adequately enough to prove they weren’t flukes. To put it quite simply, if Amos performs like he did in 2016 and Fuller like he did in 2015, the Bears are completely screwed. They cannot go back to the days of incompetence in the secondary.
Now, there are a couple factors that make me suspect that they can repeat their solid and/or excellent seasons. I think Amos benefitted greatly from having Jackson at free safety, a centerfielder type player who compensates for Amos’s lack of deep coverage skills and turnover creation and gives him the freedom to roam the box and make tackles. Fuller played like he had something to prove last year after Vic Fangio stated publicly he was disappointed with Fuller’s effort in rehabbing his injury. You would hope – check that, you would expect – Fangio to do everything he can to make sure Fuller continues to play with that chip on his shoulder.
2. Turnovers, turnovers, TURNOVERS
This should be and is the primary job of any secondary in football. The vast majority of the time, winning the turnover battle equals winning the game. The Bears have a player who is clearly talented in this regard in Eddie Jackson, and a year of progression for him should be fantastic for the team’s total.
What is more concerning is how Fuller and Amukamara struggled in this aspect last season. Pass deflections are great but interceptions get teams to the playoffs and dropped interceptions or plays where either of the starting corners were had a chance but were a bit too late in their breaks on the ball hurt the team last season. They have to do a better job in order to defeat offensive juggernauts like Green Bay, Los Angeles, or New England, all of whom appear on the Bears’ schedule this season.
3. Symbiotic relationship with the pass rush
When defenses are at their best, the secondary and the front four rushers help each other out in the passing game. They complement each other’s strengths and more importantly, they compensate for each other when one unit doesn’t do their job as well as they should have.
A fair amount of sacks in today’s NFL are coverage sacks, where the quarterback finds nobody open and is forced to go down, despite the pass rush taking their time in getting into the backfield. Turnovers are forced frequently when the front four makes the quarterback hurry and make poor decisions to avoid sacks when they ordinarily wouldn’t have.
Last season, the secondary did their fair share of work in this regard. Coverage sacks were fairly common in Chicago. It’s time for the pass rush to step up and do some work of their own, making the defensive back look much better and creating ample turnovers.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @JS_92_ –Feature Photo Credit: AP