2014 Bears outlook: Defensive backs

2014 Bears outlook: Defensive backs
February 9, 2014, 6:30 pm
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This is the sixth in a series looking back at the Bears' 2013 season, by position. Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin is breaking down where each position group succeeded and failed this past season, where it needs to get better and how the personnel may look different next season after free agency.

Overview: The Bears selected a safety in all eight drafts from 2005 through 2012. Every one of them with the exception of miscast former cornerback Brandon Hardin in 2012 started at one time or another. That could be viewed as respectable drafting, or it could more properly be used as a measure of the personnel chaos in a position area where answers stubbornly refused to stick. Nowhere was that more clear than in 2013. The Bears began the year seeming set with the Chris Conte-Major Wright tandem and finished the year with the positions as unsettled as ever.

Cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman were voted to the 2012 Pro Bowl and, just as at safety, the Bears went into 2013 with a secure feeling in that area. That feeling had changed by the end of last season, with needs in what had been a position of strength.

2013: Jennings returned to the Pro Bowl as an alternate after a season highlighted by four interceptions, two of them returned for touchdowns. It was no coincidence that both returns occurred within the first six games as the Bears were getting out to a division-leading 4-2 start.

As the injuries mounted in the front seven – season-enders for tackles Nate Collins and Henry Melton and middle linebacker D.J. Williams – the run defense dissolved and it fell increasingly to Conte and Wright to function as de facto linebackers, with disastrous results.

Teams ran the ball 47.3 percent of the time for the season and six of the Bears’ last 10 opponents ran the ball more than they threw it. Only the woeful Houston Texans had fewer passes thrown against them (484) than the Bears (507). The defense finished 32nd in rushing yards allowed.

Tillman went out for a game with a knee injury and then for the final seven games with a torn triceps. The Bears lost nickel corner Kelvin Hayden for the season with a hamstring tear during training camp.

Looking ahead: Key free agents: Hayden, Tillman, Zackary Bowman, Craig Steltz, Anthony Walters

The organization made Jennings a re-sign priority and concluded a four-year extension with him as the season ended. “I've always been very impressed with his athletic suddenness, his competitive fire and the energy that he brings along with a key thing,” said GM Phil Emery. “He's a playmaker.”

They filled in for Hayden with Isaiah Frey and for Tillman with Zackary Bowman. Frey will be in the mix for the nickel job this offseason.

Wright is a longshot to return in free agency after struggling mightily for most of the season. Conte is under contract but is expected to face very stiff competition to hold onto a starting job that was his to lose before last season.

Strategies: The overriding priority on defense is rebuilding the line, expected to command two of the Bears’ first three draft picks. With Jennings re-signed and Isaiah Frey under contract with a year of nickel play behind him, the Bears are in a position to take advantage of the way the draft talent pool is viewed.

“Cornerback has turned out to be a pretty good position overall,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, who has concluded that there are not a lot of first-round corners this year, maybe two or three.

“A lot of second- and third-round corners. You can wait a little bit on that spot.”

Emery made an unsuccessful effort to reinforce safety with the Hardin pick in 2012. The position will be on the shopping list again this offseason, and 2014 could begin with new starters at three of the four positions in the secondary.

2014 Position Outlook Series

Part 1: Defensive Line 

Part 2: Quarterback

Part 3: Linebackers

Part 4: Receivers

Part 5: Offensive Line

Part 6: Defensive backs

Part 7: Running backs