Defense is the project ahead for the Chicago Bears and safety has become on of the positions to watch carefully. Could the team make a serious run at free agents Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward?
Chris Conte not making plays in coverage like Byrd can
It really doesn’t matter which safety position fans look at. Both are up for grabs in 2013 regardless if the Bears happen to keep both their original starters. The question ahead is whether they might set aside a good chunk of salary cap space to pursue a top free agent. First, the free safety position. Perhaps no player had it tougher than Chris Conte for the defense. Not only was he repeatedly proven mediocre helping against the run, his repeated gaffes in coverage, capped off by a terrible blunder that ended Chicago’s playoff hopes in week 17 have left him in very hot water. It’s clear he doesn’t possess the instinct of a classic free safety despite gifted speed and athleticism. That is why so many are anxious to see if the Bears go after Jairus Byrd in free agency. The 26-year old is already a two-time Pro Bowler in Buffalo and is a natural playmaker. He finds the football and attacks it, creating game-changing moments. Having that on the back end would be such a help for defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Major Wright a free agent and not as savvy as Ward
Perhaps the more practical signing for Chicago though is Cleveland Browns strong safety T.J. Ward. He is tough, physical, reliable in coverage and one of the best tacklers at his position in the league. That is emphasized by the 112 he made on the season. He also can rush the passer too. Ward is a Pro Bowler as well and only 27. The reason he makes more sense for Chicago in 2014 is because their current strong safety, Major Wright is a free agent. Like Conte he struggled in coverage most of the year though he was a better help when it came to tackling. Wright is not a favorite to be re-signed by the team and Ward could come right in and fill the gap without missing a beat. On top of that, he likely would come a bit cheaper than Ward because free safeties are more coveted due to their abilities in coverage.
Much will come down to if Phil Emery can balance salary cap
As always the end game comes down to money. Chicago doesn’t have an enormous amount of salary cap space thanks to their recent deal to re-sign Jay Cutler. At present they have just shy of $8.5 million in space. With a number of other free agents on the roster to juggle, it seems like a difficult proposition to lure Ward or Byrd their way. Byrd has stated he feels he should get paid like the best safety in league. If his wish comes true that is likely a price tag somewhere between $8-10 million in salary cap space per season. Ward would command something a little less but still in the ballpark. Obviously Emery could make the deal more cap friendly early on but regardless it would still chew up the space the Bears have left. That means if they’re dead set on making a move they would have to create room. The best way to do that is either by re-negotiating some deals or by cutting overpriced veterans. For example, if they were to, say, wave goodbye to Julius Peppers, Michael Bush, Adam Podlesh, Earl Bennett and Eric Weems (all of whom are potential cap cuts) their cap number would go from $8.46 million to over $24 million. That would create the space needed to make an offer.
The problem is it also opens up even more roster spots to fill, which means the Chicago Bears would have to get creative with the cap since they only have seven picks in the 2014 draft. Will they make a run at Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward? Much will depend on whether they free up cap space before March.