With safeties Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor available at No. 14 of the draft’s first round, the Bears selected Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller. The simple conclusion would be that the Bears have not addressed their gaping need at safety.
That would arguably be over-simplifying and looking at one position instead of an overall. Indeed, the focus of the offseason to this point could loosely be characterized as fixing everything in front of the safety position.
In the way that a patient prepares for something like knee surgery by spending pre-surgery time strengthening all the muscles around the injured spot to aid in the rehab. It doesn’t fix the afflicted area but the overall is improved beyond just the surgery.
With signings and re-signings, the Bears strengthened defensive end (Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, and Willie Young), defensive tackle (Jeremiah Ratliff, Nate Collins), linebacker (D.J. Williams, Shea McClellin moved) and cornerback (Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman).
Those do not solve incompetence at safety but the muscles around and in front of the position are stronger. And Fuller projects to be the starter next season at corner, will be at nickel in the meantime (which plays roughly 50 percent of the snaps anyway), and if Tillman has more injury problems, the Bears drafted a big starting cornerback with the 14th pick.
Had the Bears not re-signed Tillman, at age 33, the No. 1 positional need would have been cornerback. In the longer view, it still was.
“I’m always thinking ‘now,’ but obviously when you look at needs, you have to look at needs not only our perceived current needs, but needs in the future in relationship to the contracts that you have,” GM Phil Emery said. “You’re constantly looking at the big picture. You can’t just look at today or this season. You have to look into the future.
“Last year, we had a number of one-year contract players. We signed a ton of players in terms of to either replace or extend with the players that we had here or brought in new ones. And that’s for the now, but it’s also for the future.”
Analyzing Tillman and the safety problem
The play of Chris Conte and Major Wright was indefensible. Conte required offseason surgery and will have to win back his job at free safety, and Wright is gone anyway.
Conte’s breakdowns bordered on the epic and certainly defined the phrase “high visibility.” Wright’s were such that the Bears made no effort to re-sign him and few teams outside of Lovie Smith and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who signed him.
But overshadowed by the injury nightmares within the front seven was that the run defense took its greatest tumble when Charles Tillman, a physical cornerback, went down for the final seven games of the year.
In the eight games Tillman played, offenses averaged 130 rush yards per game. Over that final seven-game span without Tillman, offenses averaged 203 yards per game.
The nature of the NFL game is that certain positions are more critical than others; that’s part of why cornerbacks are paid more than safeties. The Bears believe they secured the best player available at a premium position that, like a safety, will cover tight ends, too.
In one respect the Bears drafted an answer to the Detroit Lions selecting North Carolina tight Eric Ebron at No. 10 when they picked Fuller.
“In terms of covering different types of athletes, that’s where his length [6-feet tall] really helps him,” Emery said. “You can see him on tape covering the North Carolina tight end, Ebron. You see him cover inside slots or bigger receivers. You see him cover outside. So that versatility of coverage is a big attraction for Kyle….
“This is an example of taking a player that we really liked. We liked this player…. So, however [the draft] fell, we were going to be feeling good about that football player. We feel really good about Kyle Fuller.”