If Bears hope to turn the corner, they must prioritize secondary

Sure, the Bears would love to have Alshon Jeffery back, and questions about the pending free agent wide receiver accounted for much of Ryan Pace and John Fox's time Wednesday morning.But after they try to solve the age-old quarterback dilemma, the next most...

If Bears hope to turn the corner, they must prioritize secondary

Sure, the Bears would love to have Alshon Jeffery back, and questions about the pending free agent wide receiver accounted for much of Ryan Pace and John Fox's time Wednesday morning.But after they try to solve the age-old quarterback dilemma, the next most...

02 Mart 2017 Perşembe 00:06
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If Bears hope to turn the corner, they must prioritize secondary

Sure, the Bears would love to have Alshon Jeffery back, and questions about the pending free agent wide receiver accounted for much of Ryan Pace and John Fox's time Wednesday morning.

But after they try to solve the age-old quarterback dilemma, the next most pressing issue for Pace and Fox is dramatically upgrading a secondary that was in shambles last season. In the jigsaw puzzle that is this offseason, it's a bigger piece than the No. 1 wide receiver.

The Bears set an NFL record for futility in a 16-game season with only 11 takeaways in 2016, one fewer than the 2006 Redskins. The Baltimore Colts had 11 takeaways in 1982, but that was a strike-shortened season that lasted only nine games. That statistic undoubtedly has driven personnel discussions since the end of the season. As one general manager said here in Indianapolis this week, you ought to be able to get 20 in a season by chance.

Better cornerbacks won't immediately return the Bears to their ways under former coach Lovie Smith when they averaged 34 takeaways per season. But adding instinctive playmakers certainly will point them in the right direction and reduce what was a rash of busts in the secondary last season.

The Bears made some nice moves to upgrade the front seven a year ago and if Fox needs to improve substantially on a three-win season this year, he will need to prioritize the addition of fresh faces in the secondary.

That process will begin in free agency, which opens March 9, and Pace has dropped enough hints since January to lead you to believe the Bears will be aggressive in every imaginable way.

The Bears negotiated with Janoris Jenkins at this time last year but couldn't get the deal done as he went to the Giants on a five-year contract worth $62.5 million with $28.8 million guaranteed. That average of $12.5 million per season likely will be a ballpark range for top options such as A.J. Bouye of the Texans, Logan Ryan of the Patriots and perhaps Stephen Gilmore of the Bills.

Micah Hyde of the Packers would be interesting as he's a bit of a Swiss Army knife in terms of being able to fill multiple roles. Dre Kirkpatrick of the Bengals could also be in play. An intriguing name was taken off free-agent boards when the Rams used the franchise tag on Trumaine Johnson before the 3 p.m. deadline Wednesday.

Bears coach John Fox on receiver Alshon Jeffery

Bears coach John Fox discusses the possibility of retaining receiver Alshon Jeffery on March 1, 2017, in Indianapolis. (Rich Campbell/Chicago Tribune)

Bears coach John Fox discusses the possibility of retaining receiver Alshon Jeffery on March 1, 2017, in Indianapolis. (Rich Campbell/Chicago Tribune)

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If Pace can get to the finish line in free agency with a top cornerback this year and then add one in what is considered a particularly strong draft for cornerbacks, the Bears will have overhauled a position in critical need with some worthy nickel cornerback candidates already on the roster and young depth to sort through.

"There is a delicate balance between being aggressive and being decisive but being responsible," Pace said of the murky free-agent waters. "You can always recover from the player you didn't sign; you can't recover from the player that you signed at the wrong price. I think we've got to be conscious of that."

Maybe that's a reference to safety Jairus Byrd, who signed a six-year, $54 million deal with the Saints three years ago and was released. Pace talked about navigating "land mines" in free agency, meaning players who turn out to be busts. There's danger in committing major resources to players you don't know beyond the tape, but the Bears can't fill all of their needs via the draft. Adding some key players in free agency will allow them to stick more closely to their ideal of "best player available" when the draft rolls around.

Safety remains a major need, and while the Chiefs extended Eric Berry to keep him off the market, the Cardinals' Tony Jefferson is interesting. Word here is he is seeking a deal averaging at least $8 million per season. A former undrafted free agent, he has emerged the past two seasons.

"He changed his body a lot last year," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "He came back extremely thin and had a fantastic year. He's always had that chip on his shoulder and he's played with it. Hopefully when he gets paid, he doesn't lose it."

The Bears are going to have to pay, and they know that. You won't find playmakers in the bargain bin, especially ones with a chip on their shoulder.

bmbiggs@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @BradBiggs

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