Chris Harris is the epitome of a team-player and a locker room leader. As outspoken as NFL players come these days, Harris has no problem getting into a debate with Bears’ fans on his twitter account @ChrisHarrisNFL regarding everything for player safety to contract negotiations.
I will say this for Harris: The man loves to play football. Every time I’ve had an opportunity to watch practice, I have witnessed that first-hand. Harris was an All-Pro selection in 2010 and a key factor in the Bears’ run to the NFC Championship game.
Chicago selected the hard-hitting safety in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL draft, and he has been the definition of a clutch player ever since. There’s no denying it; Harris makes plays when it counts. And he doesn’t shy away from the pressure of a big stage.
When the Bears went on their impressive Super Bowl run in 2006, Harris showed up in the big game, intercepting a pass from Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLI. In his first season with the team, as a rookie player, he started just 13 games but managed to finish that season with 58 tackles, three interceptions for 44 yards, two fumble recoveries for 49 yards and one sack.
Despite his solid performances up until that point, the Bears traded Harris to Carolina in 2007 for a fifth-round draft choice. The Bears chose TE Kellen Davis with that pick; a guy still on the roster to date, and a guy the current coaching staff expects to be a big part of their plans this season.
When Harris was traded, head coach Lovie Smith said this: “You can only keep so many safeties. We felt like, on our roster, we had six that we felt real good about. You can’t keep six safeties; it’s as simple as that.” The five safeties the Bears kept that season were: Mike Brown, Adam Archuleta, Danieal Manning, Brandon McGowan and Kevin Payne. Of those, only Danieal Manning is currently employed in the NFL. Chris Harris is the only perennial starting safety.
And, as if to respond to anyone suggesting Harris was on the downside of his NFL career, as he headed into his sixth season, Chris had the best season of his career, statistically, in 2010 when he returned to the Chicago Bears. He finished with 70 total tackles, five interceptions for 69 yards, seven defended passes and two fumble recoveries.
Harris is now headed into his seventh season in the NFL. And while we have no basis to doubt what he can do moving forward – he’s had a very nice camp and preseason – planning for the future is a big part of a team’s responsibility.
Enter former Patriots’ safety Brandon Meriweather. Leaving one of the most respected player evaluation systems in the NFL as a player cut from the team, one has to question just what Meriweather’s impact on this team will be.
But, Meriweather’s production has not significantly dropped off in recent years. And, given the fact that Brandon has played four 16-game straight seasons since entering the NFL, durability is of just about zero concern. Meriweather has 12 career interceptions for 213 yards in just four seasons, compared to Harris’ 15 INTs for 181 yards through six seasons.
Meriweather picked off Jay Cutler in the Bears’ home debacle against the Patriots just last season, under blizzard conditions at Soldier Field. Chicago lost that game 36-7.
When news that the Bears had signed Meriweather first broke, many initially speculated that he would compete with second-year strong safety Major Wright. Brandon played the SS position his first three seasons in the NFL but finished last season at free safety for the Pats.
And, while I think that will be the case at first, Meriweather could be what the Bears consider a somewhat long-term solution at FS moving forward. Chris Harris will be a free agent after this season.
But, one has to ask the question; why would the Patriots cut a two-time Pro Bowl player (2009 and 2010) like Meriweather? One answer might be that the Patriots are moving to a significant amount of man-coverage defense; something the Bears do not play a lot of. Meriweather’s talents have been more pronounced when featured in zone coverage.
That certainly sounds like a too-good-to-be-true answer to the million-dollar question, but all we can do at this point is speculate. “He’s been able to do everything and I think he’s gotten better, worked a lot on his man-to-man coverage,” Coach Belichick said.
And, there’s no denying that Meriweather has significant character-flaw issues that the Bears have never had to deal with in Harris, including his alleged involvement in a shooting earlier this March. The truth is, no matter what his production on the field has been, Meriweather gave the Patriots pleantly of reason to cut him. But this is still considered a very low-risk, potentially high-reward move for the Bears.
Should Meriweather continue to perform, as he has in recent years, here in Chicago – while also managing to keep out of trouble – the Bears may have found a 2012 replacement for Chris Harris … that remains to be seen…