LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The acquisition of two-time Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather doesn’t necessarily signify the end of Major Wright’s days as a starter, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said.
Angelo explained the move “wasn’t an indictment on the players at the position,” indicating the club made Meriweather the team’s highest-paid safety ($1 million signing bonus, and $2.25 million base salary) because “we had to compete for him, absolutely,” which basically means the Bears paid market price for a two-time Pro Bowl player.
Angelo likened the situation to the club’s Aug. 2 acquisition of backup center Chris Spencer. The Bears gave Spencer a $2 million signing bonus and a base salary of $1.25 million. So Spencer stands to pocket more money in 2011 than starter Roberto Garza, who is scheduled to earn $2.17 million in the final season of a five-year contract.
“I know the perception was that [Spencer] was gonna come in here and be the starter,” Angelo told ESPNChicago.com. “That wasn’t my perception. It’s the same with Brandon. Our perception is that we got a quality football player that’s still in his prime. We had to compete for him, and you can’t have too many quality players, particularly at certain positions.”
Center and safety -- both spots often referred to as “quarterbacks” for their respective positional groups -- certainly fit Angelo’s description. Angelo said that while the staff was pleased with the play of Chris Harris, Wright, Craig Steltz and Chris Conte, it wanted to add one more player to the group because it’s widely considered a position of attrition, not to mention the club traditionally keeps five safeties on the roster.
In addition, Steltz suffered a hip injury in the exhibition finale, while Conte had been slowed by a head injury.
So Angelo called the acquisition of Meriweather “good insurance,” adding it would be somewhat of a stretch to expect the safety to immediately claim one of the starting spots. Meriweather will play some defensive snaps Sunday against the Falcons, but it’s unknown how much he’ll contribute.
“To just think he’s gonna come in and unseat somebody, I don’t know that,” Angelo said. “That wasn’t my intention when we went out and signed him. My intention was just to get another quality player in the mix. We like our safeties. I understand the perception, but what I’m telling you is the reality of why we made this decision. It was just [about] getting another safety because when you start out into the season, and you have an injury at that position, that’s a tough one because there’s a learning curve with that; much more so than other positions. So you want to have somebody in-house that you not only know can play, but that you can trust to do the things from a quarterback standpoint [in directing the secondary].
"That’s why we did what we did. We do the best we can to create as good of insurance as we possibly can. The big picture is you want to have as much insurance as you can at the critical positions. Both the center and the safety positions to me are critical positions on your team.”
Interestingly, just last season the Bears paid what’s considered starter’s money to part-time contributors such as running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, who received a combined $13 million.
Obviously, the Bears expect Meriweather to contribute more than Taylor and Manumaleuna. But defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli echoed Angelo’s sentiments that the signing of Meriweather shouldn’t be seen as a sign of the team’s displeasure with the current starters at safety.
“The guys that have been playing back there have played very well,” Marinelli said. “So to me, it’s a great situation for your team [to add more talent]. We’re always looking … anything we can do to upgrade our defense [or] bring in players that can help us, to me it’s nothing but positive.”
It’s also turned out to be a hectic situation with the team trying to cram as much of its defensive system into Meriweather’s brain as possible, heading into Sunday’s game against Atlanta. Marinelli said Meriweather “understands everything we’re doing,” but the safety needs to become accustomed to “the repetition of doing it, the run fits, and all those things.”
Bears coach Lovie Smith said the team has been “throwing a lot at him” since the safety’s arrival last Sunday.
“From Day 1, we were preparing him, trying to get him game ready as soon as we possibly could,” Smith said Thursday. “He’s picked it up quickly. When you’re a pro and have been around, you have some different terminology. But most of the coverages are similar, and he knew a little bit about how we played ball. So we’ll see. He’s right on pace.”