Fresh off giving up the most points in franchise history and finishing dead last in the NFL against the run, the Chicago Bears' much-maligned defense has entered the 2014 offseason with a number of obvious needs.
Chief among those roster requirements has to be at safety, where Chicago could be looking at a major overhaul of arguably its worst position on defense. One or even two new starters might be put in place—via free agency and the draft—before the start of next season.
Last year's disaster and the looming future of the current personnel at the position necessitate the need for significant improvement.
Major Wright, a third-round pick of the Bears in 2010 and three-year starter, will be an unrestricted free agent this spring and may sign elsewhere. He regressed severely in 2013, his fourth season in the NFL, and it's unlikely bringing him back will be a priority for the Bears.
Chris Conte, Wright's running mate and a third-round pick in 2011, suffered through a similar regression. He has one year left on his rookie deal.
Together, a once promising pair of young safeties played a prominent role in Chicago's defensive meltdown last season. The Bears allowed 478 points and 6,313 yards, including 2,583 rushing yards.
Only one year ago, Wright and Conte represented a bright and growing tandem at the back end of the NFL's third-ranked scoring defense and eighth-ranked pass defense. The two contributed nine turnover plays and only a few sporadic disappointments, leaving many to believe more progression was on the way in 2013.
It never happened.
By early January, Bears general manager Phil Emery was blaming himself for not adding more depth at the position.
‘‘[We] needed another safety to provide competition to improve our group—that’s on me,’’ Emery said, via Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun Times.
Without legitimate competition, the Bears two starters suffered through a season flush with disappointment.
Wright and Conte combined to intercept five passes and force four fumbles, but those impact stats are very misleading to what kind of season the two safeties actually had.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wright finished with a final grade of minus-27.4, the worst mark among all 86 qualifying safeties. Conte wasn't far behind at minus-15.8, which placed him at No. 82 overall.
Overall, the two graded out at an NFL-worst minus-43.8. The next closest safety combination was found in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars' rookie combination of John Cyprien and Josh Evans finished at minus-28.4.
Why the drastically low grades? The easy answer: Wright and Conte did very little right, regardless of whether teams threw or ran on the Bears defense.
Against Wright, opposing quarterbacks completed 28 of 36 attempts for 512 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception. His passer rating against was 146.8 (sixth worst), and nine of the 28 completions he allowed went for 20 or more yards.
No other safety gave up more passing yards last season.
It wasn't just all volume, either. Wright allowed 1.06 yards per coverage snap, which ranked second worst among starting safeties.
Conte gave up receptions on 22 of 38 attempts against his coverage, including six for more than 30 yards. Overall, the 474 yards he allowed ranked 66 out of 70 qualifying safeties.
Conte's season defending the pass bottomed out against the Green Bay Packers in Week 17, when he had a game-ending interception go through his arms before letting Randall Cobb get behind him for the division-clinching score.
Over 1,045 snaps, Conte gave up 21.5 yards per completion and an opposing passer rating of 104.5.
Combined, the two safeties were exploited for 50 completions, 986 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013. No safety combination allowed more yards, and the nine touchdowns tied the Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders for the NFL's most.
The struggles against the pass from both Wright and Conte could be somewhat explained away by how poorly the front seven of the Bears played in 2013. Pressure all but dried up along the defensive line, and injuries forced the Bears to play two rookies—Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene—at linebacker.
|Safety Struggles: Major Wright, Chris Conte in 2013|
|M. Wright||C. Conte|
|Passing Yards Allowed||512*||474|
|Passer Rating Against||146.8||104.5|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
However, the pair's free fall in contributing and tackling versus the run doesn't have an easy explanation.
The 2013 season saw the Bears give up an NFL high 161.4 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry, plus 22 touchdowns. No other run defense could match Chicago's ineptitude last season.
The safety position may not play as significant a role against the run as, say, the middle linebacker or defensive tackle, but Chicago's defense proved how problems at the back can magnify the problems.
According to PFF, Wright and Conte finished as the two worst safeties against the run in 2013. Missed tackles were a big reason why.
Neither safety led the NFL in the stat, but together, the two combined to miss more than any other safety combination. Conte missed 16—fifth most—while Wright whiffed on 15.
Thirteen of Conte's missed tackles came in the run game, which led the league. He missed one tackle for every 5.2 attempts.
Wright missed 11 against the run and one every 7.4 attempts.
Combined, the two missed 31 tackles and whiffed once every 6.3 times a tackle opportunity was presented.
Every player will miss tackles at some point in a season, but those mistakes can become multiplied when the volume increases. And at safety, a position that is typically the last line of defense against both the pass and run, missed tackles can mean a rupturing of big plays.
And that's exactly what happened in 2013. The Bears allowed 59 passing plays over 20 yards (seventh most) and another seven over 40. In the run game, Chicago gave up 18 plays over 20 yards (second most) and five over 40 (fourth).
Now, the Bears must figure out how to ensure such a disaster at safety doesn't happen again in 2014.
Wright will likely be given every opportunity to test the free-agent market, where he could find a new home. Conte should return, but nothing should be handed to him in terms of a starting spot.
A combination of free agency—where good players at the position will be available—and May's draft might be called upon to find two new starters.
Among the more notable free agents are Jairus Byrd (22 career interception), T.J. Ward (2013 All-Pro) and Donte Whitner (2012, 2013 Pro Bowler). Any of the three would be huge upgrades and an immediate starter. Ward and Whitner—two top safeties against the run—would each qualify as a splash signing for Emery.
In the draft, the Bears will likely have the option of using the No. 14 pick on Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville's Calvin Pryor. Clinton-Dix is an all-around safety with playmaking ability, while Pryor is a big hitter who is rising fast after a strong final season. Both would be first-year starters in Chicago.
Emery found out too late in 2013 that his safety position wasn't talented or deep enough to consistently compete. Considering how well the Bears GM has attacked problem areas in the past—see Chicago's offensive line and the number of weapons around Jay Cutler—it remains likely he will be aggressive in fixing his safety problem this offseason.
No team wants to start over at an increasingly important position, but the duds that both Wright and Conte delivered in 2013 will probably force Emery's hand.