For a long time, the Bears had a safety problem. Then Ryan Pace hit on a couple of late rounders, and last season the Bears were contenders for having the strongest safety tandem in the NFC North. Things have changed, a little, though. First, however, some background on what has been going on in the rest of the NFL.
Earlier in this series, I introduced the best stat in football, the defeat. Among safeties, those that play “in the box” tend to lead the defeats category. Being blunt, the NFC North did not have very many safeties in the elite tiers of this category. Jamal Adams (27), Budda Baker (24), and John Johnson (21) all made their mark. Adams and Baker were both in the Top 20 in the entire NFL, and Adams was tied for 9th (both were ahead of any Chicago player).
After those three things get bunchy. For example, fourth place belongs to three safeties with 18, and by the time we expand the range to players with 15 or more defeats, there are 16 box safeties listed. It’s the nature of the position to have an impact here, but there are some relative standouts.
Chicago has Eddie Jackson, the defending 1st-Team All-Pro and one of the better draft risks undertaken by Ryan Pace. Last year, Jackson was backed up by a perfectly middle-tier safety in Adrian Amos and rotational players like Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson, giving the Bears what was probably the most complete safety group in the NFC North. This year, I think they have actually opened the gap.
Amos is gone, and he has been replaced with Ha Ha Clnton Dix. On paper, this is an upgrade. Across the last four years (Amos’ career), Dix has 4 more games, 10 more interceptions, more than twice as many sacks (4.5 versus 2), and almost an extra 60 tackles. In reality, it gives the Bears a pair of free safeties instead of the balanced pairing they had before. They have lost a thumper in Amos, replacing him with the less physical Dix. A few analysts will insist that Dix is unreliable and that he is a poor match for Pagano’s system. A defensive system that can’t make use of a player who can move into the box and can work as a free safety is, honestly, a poor system.
Moreover, even if Dix is a partial downgrade, he is still a former Pro-Bowler and competent. With the addition of Dix, the Bears’ roster now carries the two players from the 2014 draft with the most interceptions in their class (Fuller leads Dix by 1). Dix also has the second-most sacks of any DB from that class, as well. This is not saying that I think Dix is going to challenge Eddie Jackson for the title of “best safety on the Bears”. I do think he is going to slide into the role vacated by Adrian Amos as “Eddie Jackson’s capable sidekick.”
Chicago is also placed this highly, though, because other teams have not done enough to close the gap, even with Dix nursing what seems to be (so far) a fairly mild injury heading into training camp.
Harrison Smith was tied for 7th among safeties with 17 defeats, in 2018. He was 9th (with 19) the year before. A few years ago I thought he might be slowing down--oops. Meanwhile, Jayron Kearse is a solid safety-backer who has been worth the 7th-round pick spent on him in 2016. Anthony Harris is coming off of his best season to date, with 3 interceptions and 6 passes defended in 9 starts. The Vikings are also probably hoping to infuse some talent into the position with the 6th-rounder spent on Marcus Epps, who was considered a priority UDFA candidate in the two NFL profiles I was able to dig up on him. Kearse and Epps should easily make up for the losses of Andrew Sendejo and George Iloka, who have since departed for other teams.
I think there is a fascinating debate available on whether or not Smith or Jackson should be considered the better of the two safeties. I think there is less debate over the merits of the supporting casts. In other words, Harrison Smith is a beast. The Vikings have people to put with Harrison Smith.
3). Green Bay
The Packers invested a first-round draft pick in Maryland product Darnell Savage. Based on what a lot of experts thought, that was a slight overdraft but not an astonishing one. Based on the ever-positive word out of camp and teammate praise, Savage was a steal. He will certainly have a chance to prove that his instincts beat size, though, because the Packers have very little in the way of elite verteran experience to put with Savage.
Added together Kentrell Bryce and Josh Jones have played in 65 games. Together they have 170 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions, and have defended 13 passes. Meanwhile, the Packers’ big free agent acquisition (Adrian Amos) has played in 60 games, has 269 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions, and has defended 18 passes. In other words, Adrian Amos is the proven veteran safety on the Packers’s roster. That’s not a slight. Amos is a capable mid-tier starter. However, that’s about all he is.
If Savage starts the season on fire, then the Packers will have a pair of capable safeties, and so they should be considered to be closer to Minnesota in the rankings. If Savage struggles, then the Packers will still have some decent players to consider for the second safety position. Certainly Eddie Jackson proved that a safety can have an impressive season from the beginning. However, it is really, really unlikely that Savage will eclipse both Harrison Smith and Eddie Jackson. Either way, this depth and the range of options it gives them is enough to move the Packers into third place.
Determined to one-up the Bears in at least one category, dysfunction, the Lions list DBs, CBs, and Safeties on their official website. Quandre Diggs is a defensive back, for example, but Miles Killebrew is a safety. Okay. Whatever, guys. The big news with the Lions is that they replaced former Pro Bowler Glover Quin by drafting Will Harris. The reality is that that Quin, a 10-year veteran, was definitely slowing down and needed replacement. Also reality is that Harris was largely considered a promising special teams or backup player in this draft, and he was projected to go in the fifth or sixth round. Detroit took him in the third round. That’s tough to worry about.
Quandre Diggs managed 15 defeats, but that only placed him 16th among safeties. He able to play the corner position moderately well, and he is certainly capable enough against the run. However, he is not in the same tier of talent or execution as either Jackson or Smith. He is basically a significantly more accomplished version of Adrian Amos (twice as many interceptions and quarterback hits, an extra 6 passes defended, and just as many forced fumbles). The difference between Diggs and Amos is enough of an edge that I was tempted to put the Lions ahead of the Packes.
Then I looked at the whole of the roster. The best safety on this squad is basically fighting to be considered the third-best safety in the division, and there is nothing proven in terms of talent to put next to him. No other safety on the Lions played more than a quarter of the available snaps last season. Miles Killebrew is an adequate rotational player, for example, but there is no sign that Patricia is planning on turning him into more than that. Tavon Wilson has averaged 2 defended passes across seven seasons.
That’s the safety group from the NFC North. The reality is that it is possible the Bears did slide a bit. However, no other team in the division looks like they are in a position to take advantage of that slippage. Next up are cornerbacks.