In the world according to Bears GM Jerry Angelo, pure free safeties in the NFL are "dinosaurs." Most players are tweeners, former cornerbacks who don't have the speed and athleticism to line up one-on-one with receivers. So when a player comes along who fits all the criteria of a free safety, he's just too good to pass up.
"Free safeties are like dinosaurs, you can't find them," Angelo said. "People talk about taking corners, moving them into safety. It sounds great in theory, but it is very difficult to do as well. Here is a case where the player played two years at corner, they did move him to safety and he looked very natural there."
Due to the lockout, Chicago is left in limbo regarding its safety position. Danieal Manning was very good last year. ProFootballFocus.com ranked him the fifth best safety in the league in 2010. He missed only three tackles and did not give up a single touchdown to opposing receivers. Yet, depending on the guidelines of a new CBA, Manning could become an unrestricted free agent. He was offered a three-year contract worth $6 million during last season and he rejected it, knowing he could earn more on the open market.
S Chris Conte
It was this uncertainty that most likely played a big part in the selection of Conte. Chris Harris was solid last season at strong safety but he'll be a free agent after next season. Last year's third-rounder Major Wright is expected to see an increase in playing time, but no one is really sure how he'll perform as a starter. Craig Steltz is still on the roster but he isn't really in the Bears' future plans.
So when it came time to pick in the third round, Angelo and Co. chose to forego some more-pressing positions of need – wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback and guard – and instead took a player they feel can be a starter sooner rather than later.
"Everything we look for from a physical standpoint he can do," said Angelo. "It's not going to surprise me if he is able to come in and earn some playing time, and I want to emphasize the word earn. He has all the physical attributes to do anything that we want at either safety position, but particularly the free safety position, which is a much tougher position to find."
Before his senior season, Conte (6-2, 197) had only made five collegiate starts, all at cornerback. In 2010, he switched to free safety and started all 12 of the team's games. He ranked third on the team with 72 tackles, while also adding two tackles for loss, an interception, three pass breakups, a forced fumble, two kick returns for 41 yards and the team's only blocked kick of the season, which he returned for a touchdown. For his efforts, Conte earned first-team All-Pac 10 honors.
As part of Bear Report's Scouting Tour feature, we took a close look at Conte. Here's what we wrote then:
Conte is an outstanding tackler with good speed – he ran 4.52 at Cal's pro day. Yet his lack of experience at the safety position makes him more of a developmental player. He has a hard time diagnosing plays and often must rely on his athleticism to make up for false first steps.
He'll need at least a few years at the safety position before he could ever be a full-time player. Yet he is extremely talented and could develop into a solid player down the line. At the very least, he'll be a very good special teams player. His experience at cornerback could give the Bears some additional flexibility in the defensive secondary.
In his 10 years drafting for Chicago, Angelo has drafted nine safeties, so it was no surprise to see him grab another one in this draft. What is surprising is how early the team took Conte. Most analysts considered him a fifth- or sixth-round pick heading into the draft. Yet it's obvious the Bears are intrigued with his potential, thus the reach.
"I know one of the coaches called one of our coaches up, if that ever means anything, [and said Conte] was the guy we were taking next," Angeo said. "Maybe he was blowing smoke, but it's good to know that other people knew him anyhow."
If this is true, it is possible Conte wasn't as much of a reach as most believe and that he could develop into more than just a special teamer. The team's relationship with Clancy Pendergast, Conte's former coach, also made the decision easier.
"Clancy Pendergast, who has been a long time defensive coordinator in this league, coached and coordinated their defense last year," said Angelo. "[Bears defensive backs coach] Jon Hoke and Clancy are pretty good friends. Clancy really liked this player. We really liked him first and foremost during the scouting process and then once the coaches got on board we sent out one of the coaches to work him out.
"Jon talked to Clancy and Clancy had nothing but really, really good things to say. He feels the kid is a no-brainer and felt that he still has a lot of good football ahead of him given the fact that he has only played the safety position one year."
At the time of the pick, there was, and still is, outrage by Bears fans over the selection. Yet after having a few days to let it digest, the pick may not be as bad as most felt originally. He's a project, that's for sure, but he has the intangibles to be a solid contributor. His athleticism and intelligence should help him quickly learn the free safety position at the next level.
"I was definitely a natural free safety," Conte said. "I think I have the athletic talent and ability to play corner, but safety suited me way better. My gift as a football player, being able to come down to tackle and being aggressive, is really my strength and safety suits that more than corner does."
The jury is still out on whether Conte becomes the next Manning or the next Craig Steltz. If he continues his progression as a player, there's a good chance it could be the former.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider