Bears Offseason Outlook: Secondary

The Bears have a void to fill at safety and perhaps another at cornerback.

Chris Emma
February 13, 2020 - 11:52 am
Categories: 

Editor's note: This is the ninth in a series of positional breakdowns as the Bears enter the offseason. You can find them all here.

(670 The Score) At the root of Bears defense's regression in 2019 was a large decrease in takeaways. After forcing an NFL-high 36 turnovers in 2018, the Bears forced 19 last season, a figure that ranked 22nd in the league.

That was part of the reason the Bears were left to lament five losses by one score. And the lack of takeaways -- notably the 10 interceptions -- fell in part on the secondary.

Now, the Bears enter this offseason with a void to fill at safety -- and potentially another at cornerback.

Who's back: Eddie Jackson, 26; Kyle Fuller, 27; Prince Amukamara, 30; Buster Skrine, 30; Duke Shelley, 23; Michael Joseph, 24; Tre Robertson, 27 (signed Jan. 29), Kentrell Brice, 25 (signed Jan. 8)

Free agents: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 27; Sherrick McManis, 32; DeAndre Houston-Carson, 27; Deon Bush, 27

How they got here

When the Bears won the NFC North crown in 2018, their defense featured a relentless front that created pressure and a talented secondary that took advantage of opportunities.

Regression of some sort in the takeaway department was only natural, but it was hard to envision the extent of the Bears' drop.

Injuries to star defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who missed 12 games, was part of the problem, as the Bears' lack of pressure up front left the secondary hanging.

There was also the ill-fitting back-end combination of Eddie Jackson and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, two free safeties who were forced to alternate between dropping in coverage and playing in the box. Jackson had six interceptions in a dominant 2018 season but managed only two last season, with both coming on late-game heaves.

The Bears eventually realized the tandem of Jackson and Clinton-Dix wasn't working. Just days into the offseason, Chicago signed Jackson to a four-year extension worth up to $58.4 million, making him the highest-paid safety in the league on annual basis.

While Clinton-Dix performed well, he's likely to land a more lucrative contract elsewhere as the Bears seek a more natural strong safety to play next to Jackson.

Cornerback Kyle Fuller produced another strong season, earning his way to the Pro Bowl for his efforts. But cornerback Prince Amukamara slipped in production during his age-30 season. Due $9 million in 2020, Amukamara is a candidate to be released.

Signed to a four-year deal ahead of the 2019 season, Buster Skrine fit well as the Bears' nickelback. He'll turn 31 in March, so the Bears will have to monitor his performance closely moving forward, especially with a potential replacement at the nickel spot waiting in Duke Shelley.

Quote to note

"It's a blessing. Still a lot of unfinished business out there. The most important thing is to bring that Super Bowl trophy back to Chicago." 

-- Jackson after receiving his contract extension in January.

What's ahead

After the retirement of guard Kyle Long in January, the Bears now hold $13.4 million in cap space. That ranks them 28th in the NFL in available cap space, which represents a precarious position for a team coming off an 8-8 season. 

It's why despite what Amukamara has meant to the Bears as a starter, a teammate and a union representative, he's facing the possibility of a release this offseason. It would be a business decision as Chicago has a variety of needs to address, including at tight end, right guard and likely quarterback.

By releasing Amukamara ($9 million) and receiver Taylor Gabriel ($4.5 million), the Bears would open up an additional $13.5 million -- doubling their available cap space to nearly $27 million. While that's still well shy of the league average of more than $44 million, those potentials cuts would put the Bears in a more functional position.

If the Bears want to keep Amukamara, the solution would be to restructure in his contract in a way that would allocate much of his $9 million of base salary into bonuses. The Bears did that with Long last year, creating a team option for 2020 that ultimately wasn't acted upon when he decided to retire.

If the Bears believe they can find a solid, cheaper replacement for Amukamara, it makes sense to free up the $9 million. They could seek a low-cost cornerback in free agency or the draft. Internal candidates to fill the void in the event that Amukamara exits are Kevin Toliver and Skrine, should the Bears want to move him to the outside.

The Bears also must fill some major voids at safety, where Jackson is the lone player under contract. Clinton-Dix is likely to sign elsewhere this offseason. Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson and Sherrick McManis are all set to become free agents as well.

Bush, who has started eight games in his four seasons with the Bears, could be a low-cost option to replace Clinton-Dix at safety.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.