If there’s a position for Bears general manager Phil Emery to make a Jermon Bushrod-esque financial splash in free agency, it’s safety, a position of need with a few impressive options expected to hit the market.
Emery admitted he should have had another safety on the roster to compete with Chris Conte and Major Wright, who had pretty awful seasons aside from an interception here or there.
Wright is a free agent, and Conte is entering the final year of his deal. The Bears will have one starting spot to fill, and maybe another to replace, or at least compete with Conte.
Luckily for Emery, there are a few good, young safeties who should be available. Adding one will be pricey but would bring a serious playmaking upgrade to the back end.
Looking at the financial implications, and a ballpark the top safeties will aim to exceed, William Moore, Reshad Jones and Kam Chancellor signed long-term contracts in 2013 worth close to or just more than $30 million. Chancellor received $17 million guaranteed.
Jairus Byrd: He played on the franchise tag last season ($6.9 million), so it’d cost Buffalo a lot to franchise him again. Byrd has 33 passes defensed and 22 interceptions in his career. In 2013, he was the eighth-ranked safety by Pro Football Focus and he was second in 2012. His coverage in 2012 ranked first among safeties. Byrd, 27, has the range and ball-hawking abilities that would create turnovers. Byrd’s father, Gill, was a coach with the Bears from 2006 to 2012.
T.J. Ward: Bears fans saw Ward pick off a pass and return a fumble for a touchdown in Cleveland. He is 27 and just finished the last year of his rookie contract. Unless he gets the franchise tag, Ward should be available. He has 24 passes defensed, five interceptions and 342 tackles. He was the third-ranked safety by PFF in 2013 and had the top run-defense grade at 8.1. For comparison purposes, Conte and Wright were the two worst safeties against the run by PFF’s metrics. Ward is obviously very stout in the box, which should be an attractive quality for this Bears defense.
Donte Whitner: Whitner, who turns 29 in July, has missed only one start in the past four years and finished 2013 as the sixth-ranked safety by PFF. His 10.7 grade in coverage was ranked fifth. Whitner has said he would like to remain in San Francisco, but they did draft a safety last year in Eric Reid. He’s known as a big hitter, but improved his coverage this past season.
Chris Clemons: Even though he turns 29 in September, Clemons has only five seasons under his belt. He played the 2013 season on a one-year deal with the Dolphins and had a career-high eight passes defensed. His 7.2 grade in coverage was ninth among safeties. An interchangeable safety, Clemons is not spectacular, but has been dependable in Miami.
Mike Mitchell: This is the unknown of the group. Mitchell had started nine games from 2009 to 2012 before signing with the Panthers last offseason and he broke out with four sacks, nine passes defensed and four interceptions. A strong safety, Mitchell turns 27 in June.
Other safeties set for 2014 free agency: Malcolm Jenkins, Antoine Bethea, Bernard Pollard, Stevie Brown, Kendrick Lewis and Nate Allen.