No one’s going to mistake Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace for Rich Uncle Pennybags anytime soon. After all, the most important distinction between the two, is that Pace will have actual, measurable money to spend to improve the Bears, as opposed to Monopoly bucks in a board game.
Yes, with so many needs from the secondary to the quarterback, Pace figures to have the Bears well in the fold at buying some success in 2017. This is part of the organization’s Get-Out-Of-Jail Free card. Build the foundation through the draft, sure, but going out, browsing at various wares, and purchasing an upgrade or three won’t hurt in the slightest.
Pace knows it. Fans know it. And it can all be done with the proper risk-aversion that understands the Bears don’t “treat themselves” too much. On this upcoming shopping spree, it’s about being responsible and operating within your means.
As a precursor, the to-do list mandates these are the positions the Bears possess that they can fix this offseason: Safety, cornerback, quarterback, edge defender, tight end, offensive tackle, and wide receiver. Some of these deficiencies will be solely focused on either the open market or free agency. Some will feature both avenues.
Either way, opportunity has come knocking to look into addressing almost, if not all of these areas, given Chicago’s ample cap situation.
Today, as it in my mind is the most vast void on the roster, we go shopping for safeties.
Theoretically, one could make the argument that it’s too early to give up on Adrian Amos or Harold Jones-Quartey as upcoming third-year players. For Amos, he’s a former fifth-round pick that’s probably playing above his potential (take that how you will), while Jones-Quartey is a former un-drafted free agent whose at least become serviceable depth.
But sticking with either of these two in 2017 would be an ongoing mistake and a demonstration of a lack of accountability.
According to the Athletic, both allowed a passer rating above 120 when targeted in 2016. In a league predicated on the modern passing dynamic, that’s not even adequate, and is just one demonstration of the overall upgrade Chicago needs to make.
Some argued that Amos underwent a “sophomore slump” but you could just as easily turn that around and say it’s an excuse for a player that wasn’t that good to begin with. That Amos - seen as a building block following 2015 - merely stood out on a bad defense. Whatever slump Amos went through, should be more seen as the kind of player he actually is, because saying slump is just an excuse for a guy’s overall regression to the mean when the drop is this dramatic.
As for Jones-Quartey, its all up in the air. He appears to be a solid in-the-box player with 78 tackles in 2016, but as evidenced above, can’t be trusted in coverage whatsoever. The time to replace these two, is now.
It’s been a long time since the Bears had a dynamic playmaking safety, let alone two, or one reliable enough to not make backbreaking mistake after backbreaking mistake. Think Mike Brown in the early 2000’s, or Danieal Manning and Chris Harris later, for a short period. This team churns through safeties almost as much as it churns through quarterbacks, because somehow the answer is never present.
Here’s the market and the top safeties Pace should be preparing checks for:
- Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs, Unrestricted
Does Chicago need a safety with Berry’s range and impact?
Atlanta a pris l'avantage avec le TD, KC a repris l'avantage avec l'interception d'Eric Berry (2 points). Incroyable https://t.co/PQPPRkh1QF— NFL France (@FirstDownFR) December 4, 2016
That performance against this year’s NFC champion Atlanta Falcons on the road earned Berry AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 13. It was a microcosm of a player approximately a year and a half removed from being cleared to return to football after recovering from cancer. This, for the 28-year-old, was but a focal point of another familiarly stellar season.
The resumes of most any safety the Bears have ever had in their entire history all pale in comparison to Berry’s. That includes a Comeback Player of the Year award in 2015 for said cancer recovery, and this season’s most recent accolades: Berry is now a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time First Team All-Pro.
At this very moment, along with guys like Seattle’s Earl Thomas, Minnesota’s Harrison Smith, or the New York Giants’ Landon Collins, Berry may be the very best the NFL has to offer as a safety, and that’s because he does it all.
He’s been the Chiefs’ Swiss Army Knife of sorts. Berry has been best deployed in a center-fielding role like Baltimore’s Ed Reed of old, but he’s more than capable of moving all over your defense. This is a defender with the necessary range, instinct, and physicality to both take the ball away as a nightmare for quarterbacks, and tackle in the box.
Above all, he’s a galvanizing leader and playmaker. It’s cliche, but it’s almost as if Berry comes through in the nick of time every time the Chiefs need him.
Just look at the resume of six years even further. 365 tackles, 14 interceptions, 5.5 sacks, five touchdowns, and three forced fumbles. Berry is a dabbling maestro.
After failing to reach a long-term deal with Kansas City in the summer, the team applied the franchise tag on Berry. That compensated him with approximately $10.8 million this past season. To tag him again, would require a 20 percent increase on said salary. For the Chiefs - who have one of the most stringent salary cap situations in the league at the moment - they may move on instead of giving their safety whose hitting his prime, the payday he’s seeking.
*Update: Berry has publicly stated he will not play this season if tagged again by Kansas City.
At any rate, it will come down to choosing to retain either Dontari Poe or Berry in all likelihood. For the record, Berry did express desire awhile back to return to the Chiefs in 2017, but that’s like any negotiating stance. Every player expresses these types of positive sentiments publicly, especially before any talks heat up.
If Pace is smart, he’s prepared to fly out to Berry’s house and be ready the moment free agency opens to knock on his door and poach him away.
2. Tony Jefferson, Arizona Cardinals, Unrestricted
Arizona has one of the best pass rushing fronts in football. Most of that up-front push comes from a trio featuring Markus Golden (12.5 sacks), Chandler Jones (11), and Calais Campbell (8). The latter two, are pending unrestricted free agents and top priorities for an organization that still thinks it’s on the championship cusp all mentions of a disappointing 2016 season aside. Campbell and Jones are core players that would behoove the Cardinals to retain.
Pending unexpected cuts, Arizona will be north of $30 million in cap space. However, given positional value, most of that will be committed to Jones - who is getting the franchise tag - and Campbell.
Who does that leave out? None other than former un-drafted free agent Tony Jefferson, whose become one of the best tackling safeties in the NFL.
Jefferson is actually already preparing his exit, taking that hint, as he “tested” free agency of potential suitors’ uniforms in Madden 17.
Cardinals S Tony Jefferson prepared for free agency using Madden NFL 17 https://t.co/4ewx2iuj6K— Jess Root (@senorjessroot) January 21, 2017
The writing’s on the wall.
Among safeties, Jefferson had the fifth most tackles in 2016 with 96. That’s his primary skill set. He’s not someone you look to take the ball away nor is he someone you want isolated in coverage.
Polite sportsmanship is also the name of the game.
Kenny Stills (Dolphins) scores at TD & shakes hands w/ Tony Jefferson (Cardinals). Don't see that often... pic.twitter.com/4SD9O6QeOK— Steve Noah (@Steve_OS) December 11, 2016
Anyway, in four seasons, the 25-year-old has just two interceptions. Arizona uses Jefferson as a sort of hybrid linebacker-safety as he’s a bit undersized to be a regular backer at 212 pounds. What he does well is reading plays, filling the gap, and using his speed and leverage to undercut opposing skill players. None of this role should be easy for Jefferson to undertake given his size disadvantage, yet he does it all with violent aplomb.
Acquiring a player such as Jefferson would mean the Bears would have to compliment him with a ballhawk safety, given his traditional strong safety ability.
It’s commendable and highly valuable that Jefferson is one of the best run defenders in the league, but you especially need to add two parts if he’s your consolation prize. You can’t get by with a glorified linebacker, and that’s meant as a complement for what this potential former Cardinal offers.
In direct contrast to Berry, Jefferson will come much cheaper. He can expect a raise from a $1.67 million salary this past season, but it’s not going to hit anywhere close to the mid-teens that a do-it-all like Berry will receive.
Jefferson will also be the youngest player discussed of these options, as an ascending talent. Though, it’s a murky proposition at how much more he can improve.
Value at all levels is something crucial to keep in mind for Pace’s spoiling of the Bears.
3. Johnathan Cyprien, Jacksonville Jaguars, Unrestricted
Cyprien is almost the identical the player to Jefferson in style, save for age.
The strong safety led all of his counterparts in tackles with 128 in 2016. His position is of a dying breed, comes at a dime a dozen (not for the Bears), and is nowhere near as valuable as it used to be. But, it’s difficult to say he doesn’t do his job well. Just don’t leave him in coverage on an island.
When you’re in the obscurity of Jacksonville in terms of market, noticing players such as Cyprien is no easy task for a casual fan. Make no mistake, and again in accordance with strong safeties - not safeties overall - Cyprien is a premier player.
I’m just not sure how wise it is to commit to a guy that I think has relatively peaked as a 26-years-old former second round pick. Again, you’d have to pair him with a quality free safety who can make plays on the ball if you want to be comfortable.
And as an aside, Jefferson, even with lesser numbers in comparison to Berry and Cyprien, was graded a better player than both by Pro Football Focus at season’s end. Remember that Berry does more than sit in the box, though. And also remember that Cyprien and Jefferson offer the same skills, just one’s better and younger.
As a rookie Cyprien was one of analytic’s worst graded safeties that gradually improved, so he’s made his proverbial leap anyway.
Cyprien is similarly paid to Jefferson at $1.7 million. Both are getting their raise, but only one may be overpaid in the end.
However Pace and the Bears choose to loot the community chest, they have options.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.