Three days after the 2016 season ended, general manager Ryan Pace said the Bears needed to add more playmakers to their secondary.
“That’s on me,” he said, “and we’ll do that.”
Four months later, the lineup looks different but has no sure-fire, long-term solution.
Unable to land a blue-chip free agent, the Bears went shopping at the second tier of the secondary. Their $8 million guarantee to former Arizona Cardinals cornerback Marcus Cooper on a three-year, $16 million deal was the 10th-most money given to a defensive back in free agency. Cornerback Prince Amukamara’s $7 million guarantee ranked 12th, and safety Quintin Demps’ $5 million on a three-year, $13.5 million deal was 13th.
In perhaps the deepest cornerback draft in a generation, the Bears took only one defender — Alabama safety Eddie Jackson, who signed his four-year rookie contract Monday after being limited in rookie minicamp as he recovers from a broken leg.
“I mean, there isn’t a position coach in the league that wouldn’t like to have a first- or second-round pick to add to their position,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Saturday. “Likewise, any coordinator would like to have a first- or second-round pick to add to the squad, but that’s just the way it goes. There’s no big deal there.”
Still, Fangio was hesitant to declare this secondary unit more talented than the one that tied an NFL record for futility with just 11 takeaways last year.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Asked if he believed it could be better than last year, Fangio again demurred.
“We’ll see,” he said.
The biggest challenge will be integrating veterans who have heard different coaching points and played in disparate systems.
“I love it,” defensive backs coach Ed Donatell said. “My biggest thing is to probe and interview and find out what you know and who taught you. I will tap into all kinds of other guys’ good coaching.
“It’s an art, but you bring it in. I like it. That’s a positive thing. It’s not just your own stuff.”
In six years as a pro, Amukamara has posted more than one interception in a season only once. The Bears are his third team in three years, but Fangio said he improved last year with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“He should be in his prime,” Fangio said.
Cooper’s value was so low last season that the Kansas City Chiefs traded him on cut day for a seventh-round pick — in 2018. He went on to have four interceptions while starting 13 times — two more starts than he’d totaled in his first three years.
Donatell, who, along with Fangio, had coached Cooper during the San Francisco 49ers’ 2013 preseason, said he wasn’t surprised Cooper improved last year, given how seriously he treats the craft.
“The kid advanced,” Donatell said.
The Bears’ greatest unknown at cornerback is a returning player, 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller, who didn’t play last season after having preseason arthroscopic surgery. Fangio questioned his desire to return last year, but Fuller, at least for now, remains with the team.
“We’ve got to get his health back 100 percent,” Donatell said. “He’s headed that way.”
When he gets there — if he gets there — he’ll have competition.
“It’s kind of on us to come through as a position group,” Donatell said. “I relish the challenge of us doing that. It’s very doable. We’ve got all kinds of good parts to put together. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Even if they won’t make any grand projections for their defensive backs, the Bears take comfort in their experience.
“Once you’ve done it, you’ve done it,” Donatell said. “That’s what we bank on. You’ve already made a shot. We’re going to ask you to make another one.”
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.