Despite adding a pair of free agents during the first two days of the new league year, it is difficult to determine whether or not the Chicago Bears have improved at the safety position.
The Bears signed Ryan Mundy, formerly of the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers, on the opening day of free agency. Chicago moved again Wednesday, landing former Green Bay Packers safety M.D. Jennings, per the team's official Twitter account:
Mundy will be given a chance to start at strong safety, where Major Wright—last year's starter—is expected to leave in free agency. Jennings will likely compete with incumbent starter Chris Conte at free safety.
Neither is a big-name acquisition, and neither will be expected to immediately turn around what was arguably the NFL's worst set of starting safeties in 2013.
The 29-year-old Mundy has been nothing more than a spot starter during his five-year NFL career. He set a career high with nine starts for the Giants last season, but he was eventually beat out by Will Hill and later played sparingly down the stretch.
Previously, Mundy made five starts over four years in Pittsburgh.
While durable—playing in all 80 games since entering the NFL—Mundy has just two interceptions, 10 defensed passes and one sack during a mostly underwhelming career. His best contributions have come on special teams.
Jennings went undrafted in 2011 but latched on with the Packers as a college free agent. After playing mostly on special teams as a rookie, Jennings went on to start 26 games for the Packers over the last two seasons, including all 16 in 2013.
Yet, over 47 career games, Jennings has just one interception and three passes defensed. He didn't have an interception last season, and his one pass defended ranked dead last among safeties who started all 16 games. The Packers were the only team without an interception from the safety position.
Jennings is being touted as a rangy, cover safety, but his 2013 season hurt that reputation.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jennings allowed five touchdown passes and an opposing passer rating of 148.8, third worst among safeties last season. Quarterbacks completed a league-high 88.9 percent of attempts against him.
He also finished 53rd in run-stop percentage, with as many missed tackles against the run (four) as stops, described by PFF as a tackle constituting an offensive failure.
Overall, Jennings missed nine tackles. And his 10 total stops were the least by a safety with at least 800 snaps played.
In desperate need of help at safety, the Packers decided against tendering Jennings as a restricted free agent, leaving him open to sign with any team without penalty.
|Bears New Safeties Group, 2013 Stats|
|Tkls||INTs||PD||Opp. Pass Rating||PFF Grade|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
While both Mundy and Jennings may end up being nothing more than depth signings, the Bears still can't look at the safety position and feel their work is done.
Chicago is essentially rebuilding the entire position this offseason. It's entirely possible no safety from 2013 will be back besides Conte, who is being given one last chance to prove he belongs on the roster. Wright won't return, and fellow free agents Craig Steltz and Anthony Walters are not current priorities.
Change was needed, as Wright and Conte combined to allow 986 passing yards and nine touchdowns—both league highs—as starters last season. Their total grade at PFF was an NFL-worst minus-43.8. We broke down the struggles of Chicago's safeties in further depth here.
The requirement of fixes at the back end has always been evident, but few envisioned Mundy and Jennings as part of the eventual answer. The Bears still have much work to do.
While signing two players this early in free agency would suggest Chicago is out of the running for a safety in the early rounds of May's NFL draft, that shouldn't be the case here. The Bears still need to find at least one starter, as a combination of Conte and Mundy or Jennings and Mundy probably isn't the answer. If the board falls a certain way and a safety is there for Chicago, the Bears shouldn't hesitate.
Credit general manager Phil Emery for beginning the rebuild of arguably his worst position. But adding backup-level players like Mundy and Jennings hasn't solved Chicago's safety problems. This is still a position that needs another talent infusion before the start of the 2014 season.