INDIANAPOLIS - One interception. One.
That's what the Bears' safeties produced during the 2009 season - and it's one big reason general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith will target that position this off-season.
"We need to improve our safety position, period," Smith said Friday at the NFL scouting combine. "As far as competition, maybe (it means) adding a couple guys. We haven't been pleased with the production we've gotten."
Last year, five players started games at free safety for the Bears. Kevin Payne started the opener, Danieal Manning took over for the next 10 games, rookie Al Afalava moved from strong safety to free safety for three games, and Josh Bullocks and Craig Steltz each started a game down the stretch.
No one distinguished himself.
"After we came out of our (postseason) meetings, that was one position that we felt, at worst, we wanted to create more competition," Angelo said. "Not having a first- or second-round pick, it's hard to determine what's going to be there in the third round. But this is a pretty good draft for the secondary."
Said Smith: "We need to get more competition and just improvement in general."
The improvement could come via free agency or the draft, or both.
Free agency begins at 11:01 p.m. (Chicago time) March 4, and there are some talented safeties on the market, starting with the Saints' Darren Sharper, who tied for the NFL lead with 9 interceptions last year, proving age (he's 34) is just a number.
The Bears passed on Sharper last year, when he was also a free agent. The Steelers' Ryan Clark is another quality player who would help at free safety, where the Bears appear to have a greater need than at strong safety.
"If there's the right person, we're going to take a look," Angelo said. "Obviously if you determine that as a position you want to upgrade, we'll look at both markets and we'll just see what free agency looks like. Obviously it's much more restrictive than what it has been in past years, so it's going to be a little bit harder to predict, but we're certainly looking."
Without a new collective bargaining agreement in place by March 5, players must have six years of service, instead of four, to be unrestricted free agents.
Most of the Bears' safeties seem to fit the common description of a strong safety, solid and physical in run support but not exceptional ball athletes or very adept in coverage. But the free-safety types are the ones in demand in the current NFL, mostly because of the increased popularity of the passing game.
"With what the offenses are doing in terms of spreading teams out, people are starting to look for more the athletic safeties," Angelo said.
"In the last few years you're starting to see those players go higher in the draft, but that position has evolved in personnel people's minds and in what (they) look for. It's becoming a more and more difficult position to find and to play."
Smith and Angelo both seem content to allow a young and somewhat raw corps of wide receivers continue the maturation process that took big steps last season. Neither sees the need for bringing in veteran help.
"We learned a couple years ago when we brought (veterans) Brandon Lloyd and Marty Booker in, that (they're) going to take reps (away from younger players).
"I felt like about halfway through the (2008) season, Earl (Bennett) was ready to go and I think our coaches agreed. But you can't have the best of both worlds. You can't bring in that veteran and also expect to continue your development of the young receivers."