The Bears have finally decided to get serious about replacing free safety Mike Brown.
It took a year of watching Al Afalava and Kevin Payne being too slow to get to receivers on third down and Danieal Manning lining up incorrectly, before they realized what everyone else knew going into last offseason.
No one on their roster is a legitimate starting NFL free safety.
“After we came out of our meetings, that was one position that we felt, at worst, we wanted to create more competition,” general manager Jerry Angelo said Friday at his annual meeting with Bears beat reporters in his hotel suite at the Indianapolis scouting combine. “And not having a first- or second-round pick it’s hard to determine what’s going to be there in the third round.”
Translated: Free agency will have to be the course of action at safety. With both their first two picks shipped out already via trade, the Bears could actually find a few free safety types.
“This is a rich defensive line draft again this year, particularly with the underclassmen declared,” Angelo said. “Probably that’s the best position that I’ve seen right now.
“It’s a little better than average in the secondary from our perspective.”
Both are spots where the Bears need help.
However, expecting a rookie later-round draft pick to immediately grasp the NFL well enough to call the shots on the field in the secondary—like a free safety must—is not being entirely realistic.
“The demands of what the secondary are being asked to do, in coverage particularly with what the offenses are doing in terms of spreading teams out, people are starting to look for more the athletic safeties,” Angelo said. “And probably in the last few years you’re starting to see those players go higher in the draft.
“You saw (Washington’s LaRon) Landry, the sixth pick in the draft. Normally you don’t see that at the safety position. But that position has evolved I think in personnel people’s minds and what to look for, it’s becoming a more and more difficult position to find and to play.”
So upcoming “restricted” unrestricted free agency is their best chance. Because the lack of a collective bargaining agreement requires players to have six years experience instead of four to become unrestricted free agents, options for talent-hungry teams will be very limited among free safeties and many other positions.
Aging retreads like Darren Sharper aside, the Bears face a limited free agency talent pool at that position.
Then again, two safeties who could be cut in the next few weeks are possible options.
The Jets’ Kerry Rhodes and Arizona’s Antrel Rolle could unwillingly join the ranks of free safeties looking for work. Rhodes is due a $2 million roster bonus in March and Rolle a $4 million roster bonus plus a salary raise to $8.1 million. Neither will realize those paydays.
Rhodes got benched last year for several reasons, including disagreements with coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, while the Cardinals may decide to go on the cheap with 2009 third-round pick Rashad Johnson at that spot.
Cheap and Cardinals always go hand in hand, but who can blame them in this situation. Any defensive back who participated in January’s Packers-Cardinals offensive playoff free-for-all has to be looked at with a suspicious eye.
The Bears would probably be better off pursuing Rhodes, a well-respected player before his $33 million contract, last year’s lack of production, and fears he is more devoted to pursuing careers as a male model and actor.
If the Jets tried to hold on to Rhodes, pay him the bonus and force someone to make a trade, the Bears might have to spend some of their depleted draft pick supply or turn to Rolle.
“We’re going to be able to line up with the players that we have,” Angelo said. “We have Josh Bullocks, we have Craig Steltz, we have Danieal Manning. So we have players in place, as we speak, with experience, including Kevin Payne.”
Coach Lovie Smith sounded a more realistic tone about using those same players again.
“We need to improve our safety position, period,” coach Lovie Smith said before the gathered NFL media at a mass combine press conference. “As far as competition, maybe adding a couple guys.
“(We) haven't been pleased with the production we've gotten. I think we had one interception from the safety position. That was one of the reasons why I feel like our takeaways were down this year. We need to bring in or just get more competition and just improvement in general.”