Free agency focus: Analyzing the Bears’ defense, options

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Bears cornerback Stephon Gilmore is a coveted free agent. (AP)

Vic Fangio is still here. So are most of his position coaches.

Now he just needs more talent.

The defensive coordinator and coach John Fox shot down any rumors of discord late last season, and they backed it up by deciding to continue their relationship this offseason.

Fangio has real hope his team will make a jump in his third season, even after the Bears gave up 109 points in their final three games.

It’s not hard to see potential, either, assuming 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd plays more than 12 games and 2015 second-rounder Eddie Goldman is active for more than six.

Last March, the Bears awarded four of their five biggest free-agent contracts to defensive players. They’ll try to hunt similar veteran talent — only, this time, in the defensive backfield — when the legal tampering period begins Tuesday.

Inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman proved worthy free-agent investments before the former suffered a catastrophic knee injury and the latter was suspended four games for performance-enhancing drugs. Defensive end Akiem Hicks, signed to a two-year deal last offseason, was voted the team’s defensive player of the year.

“We’re in good position from a monetary standpoint, not that we’re going to build through free agency, because we believe the right way to build is through the draft,” Fox said last week at the combine. “But last year, getting a guy like Akiem Hicks and Jerrell Freeman, some of the people we got in free agency, they improved us.

“We need to do that again this offseason.”

The breakdown

2016 defensive rankings: Total: 15. Scoring: 24.

2016 Pro Bowl players: None since Tim Jennings three years ago.

Notable free agents: Outside linebacker Sam Acho; defensive end Cornelius Washington; inside linebacker Christian Jones (restricted); safety Chris Prosinski; cornerback Johnthan Banks.

Top five salary-cap hits for 2017: Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee ($7.825 million); outside linebacker Lamarr Houston ($6.99 million), Hicks ($5.5 million); outside linebacker Willie Young ($4.1 million); cornerback Tracy Porter ($4.05 million).

Defensive draft picks: 12: Floyd, DE Jonathan Bullard, LB Nick Kwiatkoski, S Deon Bush, CB Deiondre’ Hall, S DeAndre Houston-Carson (2016); Goldman, S Adrian Amos (2015); CB Kyle Fuller, NT Ego Ferguson, DL Will Sutton (2014); DE Cornelius Washington (2012).

The big decision

General manager Ryan Pace was blunt three days after the season.

“I honestly think we need to add more playmakers to our secondary,” he said. “We need to add more ball skills to our secondary. That’s on me, and we’ll do that.”

The Bears are desperate for talent at cornerback and safety. But how much will they be willing to spend? They have about $51.5 million in cap space, and figure to have even more if and when they decide to part with Jay Cutler, Eddie Royal

and Houston.

Pace plans to be disciplined with his contract offers, but the market is shaping up to feature some jaw-dropping figures.

Even with a strong class of defensive backs in the draft, the Bears can’t afford to come away from free agency without either a starting cornerback or safety — or both.

After the Bears finished with 11 takeaways last year — tying the NFL record for futility — only Porter, who gritted through injuries, could state an honest claim to a starting job next season.

Fuller’s future is murky after Fangio questioned his work ethic and he failed to play a snap after recovering from a routine knee operation. Slot corner Bryce Callahan, tendered a contract Monday, should be a contributor.

The Bears need one safety — or two, if they’re convinced Amos isn’t dynamic enough. Bush and Harold Jones-Quartey make more sense as backups than starters.

Draft implications

The draft might be the deepest for defensive backs in a generation. That’s good news for the Bears, who certainly won’t use their No. 3 overall selection at corner but could land a stalwart in the second round.

“The corner and the safety class is the best I’ve seen,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.

Three different safeties could go in the first half of the first round — LSU’s Jamal Adams, Ohio State’s Malik Hooker and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. A safety hasn’t been chosen as high as No. 3 since 1991.

Pace wants to enter the draft with as well-rounded a team as possible so the Bears don’t have to reach at certain positions. But the stellar draft class will be comforting if the Bears can’t totally rebuild the secondary this week.

Free-agent fodder

Coming off a down season, Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore still might be the most trustworthy choice of the bunch. The 10th pick of the 2012 draft has started all but two games in which he’s been healthy over the past five years. His 14 career interceptions are one more than Porter has logged in 30 more games.

Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye is the opposite of Gilmore — last season was the former undrafted free agent’s first as a starter. The Patriots’ Logan Ryan figures to earn the third-largest contract among free-agent corners.

The safety class starts with the Cardinals’ Tony Jefferson, who (jokingly?) tweeted back and forth with guard Kyle Long last March, looking to be recruited by the Bears as a restricted free agent. He then went out and performed well.

Jaguars safety John Cyprien earned Pro Football Focus’ highest run-defense grade ever for a safety last year and has started 60 games in his four seasons. The Cowboys’ Barry Church, 29, is available but might not fit the Bears’ youth-oriented rebuild.

If the Bears search for outside linebacker depth to supplement McPhee’s knees, they’ll figure to shy away from veterans such as Nick Perry and DeMarcus Ware in favor of more affordable role players.

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