Evaluating the revamped Chicago Bears’ secondary

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Today, we complete our pre-draft evaluation of the defense by taking inventory of the re-worked Chicago Bears’ secondary.  Previously we evaluated the overhaul of the Bears’ defensive line,and we also tackled the Bears’ linebacking corps 

The Chicago Bears’ secondary might appear to be the primary culprit in the defense’s 25th ranking in  yards per pass attempt allowed.  But clearly an anemic pass rush, tied for last in the league with 31 sacks, forced the secondary to maintain coverage for unreasonable lengths of time.

We are not defending safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte for repeatedly flailing at running backs in the open field, but we do believe they were grossly overexposed by a front seven that could not control the line of scrimmage.

The Bears have retained last year’s starting cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, 2012 nickel back Kelvin Hayden and last year’s nickel back Isaiah Frey.  They parted ways with Zackary Bowman, who replaced Tillman when he was sidelined for the season with a triceps injury.

At safety, the team made no effort to re-sign Major Wright. Conte, who recently underwent surgery on his right shoulder and will miss four to five months, is scheduled to return.  The Bears signed strong safety Ryan Mundy away from the New York Giants and free safety M.D. Jennings away from the Green Bay Packers.

Again, we will rely upon the highly-reputable Pro Football Focus (PFF) for our evaluation.

Tim Jennings:  The diminutive yet durable Jennings has played in 62 of 64 games since joining the Chicago Bears’ secondary in 2010, including 58 starts.  Out of 110 qualifying cornerbacks, Jennings ranked 55th and produced a barely-above-average-grade of .3. in 2013.


Charles Tillman:  Tillman, despite being limited by injury, still qualified.  Among the 110 cornerbacks, Tillman was ranked 89th with a grade of -6.5.


Zackary Bowman:  Bowman, who made seven starts in Tillman’s place, ranked 74th out of 110 and registered a grade of -7.4.  Bowman signed with the New York Giants.

Flashback to 2012 when Tillman was ranked 3rd and Jennings 9th among 113 qualifying cornerbacks with grades of 23.8 and 12.4, respectively.

What happened in the intervening year to change the veterans corners’ production so dramatically?

In 2012, the Bears had 50 sacks and 192 quarterback hurries, a cornerback’s best friends.  Last season, the defense registered just 31 sacks and 144 quarterback hurries.  The Bears also ranked eight defensively against the run in 2012, a dramatic difference from last year when they yielded a league-worst 161 yards per game.

So if the defensive front seven, particularly the front four, can apply pressure on the quarterback and not overexpose the cornerbacks in rush defense, there should be no reason Tillman and Jennings cannot have significant bounce back seasons.

Isaiah Frey:  Nickel back Frey earned a -4.8 in his first full season after spending a year on the Bears’ practice squad. He ranked 82nd out of 110 cornerbacks.

Kelvin Hayden:  Hayden will compete with Frey for the position he held prior to tearing his hamstring before the 2013 season.  In 2012, Hayden ranked 72nd out of 113 qualifying cornerbacks and was given a grade of -2.9.

The Bears made two major acquisitions at safety, signing Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings.

Ryan Mundy:  Mundy, who played all sixteen games with the Giants last season, ranked 37th of 86 safeties and earned a grade of .2.  More than likely, Mundy will replace Chris Conte at strong safety.

Chris Conte:  Conte had a dreadful 2013 season, ranking 82nd of the 86 safties with a grade of -15.8.  However, the year before, when the Bears defense was mounting an aggressive pass rush and playing stoutly against the run, Conte ranked 56th of 88 safties with a substantially better grade of -2.0.  Conte’s pass coverage has always been graded higher than his run defense, so a move to free safety might leave him less exposed to the run and allow him to exploit his coverage strengths.


M.D. Jennings: Jennings ranked 67th out of 86 safeties last season playing for the Green Bay Packers.  He will likely compete with Conte, who will replace the departed Major Wright, who ranked last among all safeties in 2013.

Tillman, Jennings and Hayden are all thirty years of age or older, and Tillman, Hayden, Conte and M.D. Jennings are in contract years.  More than likely, the Bears will prioritize the secondary in the upcoming draft.

Nevertheless, the Chicago Bears’ secondary can be a position of strength, as it was in 2012, if the defensive line avoids leaving it on an island and overexposing it in run support.

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