Major Wright (57 TACK, 2 TFL, 6 PD, 3 INT, 1 TD)
Wright opened up training camp as the starter at free safety alongside Chris Harris. The two looked comfortable with each other in camp but once the real games began, things got ugly. Wright immediately started missing tackles. He was impatient, out of control and consistently failed to wrap up. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he missed more tackles (6) than any other Chicago safety. In coverage, he never developed the proper understanding of a safety's job in Lovie Smith's Cover 2, which is to keep the offense in front of him and shut down the deep pass. Opposing quarterbacks completed 71.4 percent of passes thrown into Wright's coverage and scored three touchdowns against him – the most of any Bears safety. Wright dealt with shoulder, hip and concussion issues all year, forcing him to miss four contests due to injury.
S Chris Conte
Chris Conte (30 TACK, 1 TFL, 2 PD, 1 INT)
Chris Harris was unbelievably bad to start the season. PFF stats show that opposing quarterbacks had a 158.3 passer rating when throwing to Harris' coverage – the highest possible rating. That, on top of a recurring hamstring injury, led to him being cut after Week 8. In stepped in Conte at free safety, with Wright moving to strong safety. Conte, the team's 2010 third-round pick, started nine games as a rookie. He isn't a big playmaker but he's consistent and smart. He understands his duty as a free safety and did a good job not letting receivers get behind him. Athletically, he's mid-tier. Yet it's his intelligence that could make him a fixture on the back end for years to come. Conte missed the final two games of the season with a sprained ankle.
Craig Steltz (53 TACK, 1.0 SACK, 1 TFL, 2 FF)
Steltz started the final four games of the year, plus the Week 3 matchup against the Packers, due to injuries to both Wright and Conte. He's never been much more than a special teams player during his four years with the club, yet Steltz showed very well as a starter to close the season. PFF graded him better than all other Chicago safeties, and by a large margin. In run support, he was outstanding, often serving as a fourth linebacker against run-heavy teams like Seattle and Denver. Packers TE Jermichael Finley ate him up in the Week 3 contest, but Steltz closed the season strong against the pass. Opposing signal callers completed just 56 percent of passes thrown to Steltz's coverage, by far the lowest of any Bears safety.
Brandon Meriweather (32 TACK, 2 PD)
Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowler, was cut by the New England Patriots a few weeks before the season started. The Bears subsequently signed him to a one-year deal worth $3.25 million. He was thrust into the starting lineup in Week 2 after Harris hurt his hamstring and was downright awful. Meriweather started four games and played worse than any other defensive player. He was routinely caught out of position and beat deep, while his tackling was sub-par. On top of that, he was penalized and fined by the league for spearing players. He appeared in 11 games and had zero interceptions. He was an expensive mistake.
This was arguably the worst unit on the team in 2010. Meriweather and Harris were embarrassing, while Wright was wildly inconsistent. Conte and Steltz were easily the top performers in this group. Chicago finished 28th against the pass, much of that due to the safeties giving up huge, game-changing pass plays. Missed tackles also led turned a number of short-yardage plays into big gainers for opposing offenses. If the Bears could have gotten some solid play on the back end this year, it's likely they would have made the playoffs.
Conte is signed through 2014 and Wright through 2013. Meriweather won't be invited back next year. Steltz is an unrestricted free agent.
Steltz has a lot value as a special teams player and his performance late in the year likely earned him a new contract with the team. He'll be entering his fifth season in the league and Chicago's coaches might finally give him an opportunity to compete with Wright for the starting strong safety spot next year. My money is on Steltz, who took a big step forward this season.
S Major Wright
Bears defensive coaches were very impressed with Conte this year. He'll head into camp as the starter at free safety. The kid understands the position and is very coachable. He learns from his mistakes. While he lacks ideal strength and speed, he's shown savvy at the position well beyond his years. Don't be surprised if he develops into the long-term answer at free safety.
It's hard to get a read on Wright. He's very athletic and flashes a lot of potential. Yet he doesn't showcase good fundamentals and has too many mental lapses. 2012 will be his third year in the league. If he doesn't settle down and develop into a more-consistent player, his time in Chicago could come to an end. He needs to tap into that potential.
Former GM Jerry Angelo selected a safety in all but one of his 10 drafts for Chicago. It's a crucial cog in Smith's Cover 2, yet the Bears haven't had much luck recently. In 2010, they appeared to have finally groomed a long-term option in Danieal Manning. Yet Angelo low-balled him and Manning signed with the Houston Texans. Just one of the many reasons Angelo was let go.
If the Bears re-sign Steltz, it won't be surprising if they forego the position in the draft. With Meriweather and Harris gone, the coaches expressed much more confidence in the position. Conte, Wright and Steltz is a trio they feel comfortable with heading into 2012. They'll likely sign a mid-level veteran safety in free agency to backup Conte.
It's a volatile position packed with inexperienced players. The group could take off next year and become a defensive strength, or just as easily falter and become a liability. If the latter occurs, the Bears defense will once again be strangled by the big play.
*Stats: TCK (tackles), SACK (sacks), TFL (tackles for loss), PD (passes defended), FF (forced fumbles), FR (fumble recoveries), TD (touchdowns), BLK (blocked kicks)
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.