In an ill-fated effort to build veteran depth, the Chicago Bears went into the 2011 season relying on safeties Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather. Both players failed to pan out, with Harris being outright cut in late October. Meriweather signed with the Redskins this offseason.
Due to injuries and the ineptitude of Harris and Meriweather, Wright spent time at both strong and free safety, yet was much more effective in the box. He struggled at times keeping plays in front of him and missed a number of tackles. Yet he showed improvement as the season wore on, giving Chicago's coaches confidence he can handle the starting duties going forward.
Lovie Smith and company feel the same about Conte, who demonstrated a strong understanding of his duties in the team's Cover 2 scheme. He started nine straight contests from Week 6 to Week 15, solidifying the back end, before an ankle injury landed on him IR.
The club also re-signed four-year veteran Craig Steltz, who performed well at strong safety late last season. He's a special teams ace who may challenge Wright for the starting spot in training camp.
At the NFL Scouting Combine last month, Smith said he feels the duo of Conte and Wright is the strongest safety combination he's had since coming to Chicago.
Still, with the injury histories, as well as the inexperience, of both Wright and Conte, the club may want to consider adding another young player to the mix. The team always carries four safeties, so unless they add a veteran in free agency in the next few weeks, they should strongly consider one of these early round safeties in this year's draft.
Mark Barron, Alabama (6-1, 213)
Barron underwent double hernia surgery following his senior season and missed out on the Senior Bowl and combine. After his pro day last week, he labeled himself 80-90 percent healthy. Still, at less than full strength, he was able to run a 4.53 40-yard dash. Barron has a complete game and is the most NFL-ready safety in this class. He's very strong in run support and shows great instincts in coverage. His combination of length, athleticism, experience and overall football smarts will make him starter at the pro level from day one.
Projected: 1st round strong safety
Harrison Smith, Notre Dame (6-2, 213)
Smith is considered the second-best safety in the draft, behind only Barron. He's athletic, experienced and smart, and has ideal size for the strong safety position. A strong in-the-box player and tackler, Smith excels in zone coverage, which would make him a good fit in Chicago's zone-heavy system. He might have trouble in man coverage at the pro level, as he lacks ideal instincts and ball skills.
Projected: 2nd round strong safety
George Iloka, Boise State (6-4, 225)
Iloka is a tall, lanky safety that can cover a lot of ground in the deep middle. He started 45 straight games in college at both safety and cornerback. He has decent speed (4.66 40) and strength (20 bench-press reps). He excels in zone coverage, yet has trouble mirroring defenders in man sets. He relies too much on superior athleticism and must work on his awareness when manned up on a receiver. While he's big and strong, Iloka is an inconsistent tackler. He could play either strong or free safety, but appears better suited for the deep spot.
Projected: 2nd-3rd round free safety
Trumaine Johnson, Montana (6-2, 204)
Johnson played cornerback in college but he didn't demonstrate a corner skill set at the combine and is a bit stiff in the hips. He'll be better suited as a safety in the NFL. The small school product is rising up draft boards because of his size and versatility. He's big enough and strong enough to play in the box, yet his experience at corner will help him keep pace in man-to-man sets. The Bears conducted an individual workout with Johnson, who carries some off-the-field baggage.
Projected: 2nd-3rd round defensive back
Brandon Taylor, LSU (5-11, 209)
Taylor showed good speed at the combine (4.58 40). He was a three-year starter at one of the premier programs in the nation, which says a lot about his on-field ability. He is a punishing player who acts more like a linebacker than a safety in the box. Of all the safeties in the draft, Taylor may be the best tackler. That said, he struggles mightily in man coverage, in which he hardly played during college. He'll have to work hard at mirroring defenders if he's going to see the field in the NFL.
Projected: 3rd-4th round strong safety
S Markelle Martin
Chris Morrison/US Presswire
Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State (6-1, 207)
Martin tore his meniscus at the combine and was only able to participate in the bench press (19 reps). He was still in crutches at OSU's pro day but said he'll be ready to go come next season. Martin is very quick and can cover a lot of ground. He closes well and takes good angles. He's a hard hitter with a knack for stripping the ball. He lacks ideal awareness in zone coverage, which is worrisome, and he bites too easily on play fakes. Martin will need some work with NFL coaches but he has the intangibles to be a producer down the line.
Projected: 3rd-4th round free safety
Trenton Robinson, Michigan State (5-10, 195)
Robinson ran well at the combine (4.52 40) and improved to a 4.43 at his pro day. His pure speed makes him a great fit at free safety in the NFL. He's a former cornerback that has good cover skills, something lacking in most of the safeties in this year's class. He's not the best tackler and struggles to shed blocks in run support. He's an experienced three-year starter that has dealt with numerous injuries. If he can stay healthy, he'll be a draft steal.
Projected: 3rd-4th round
BEAR REPORT PICK
Outside of Barron, there isn't a safety in this class worth drafting in the first two rounds. Any team reaching for Smith in the first or second will be doing just that: reaching.
The Bears will likely address the trenches with their first two picks. If they wait until the third round to look for safety help, there are a couple of good options.
If the club wants to keep Wright and Steltz at strong safety, then Robinson is a great selection. He's a pure free safety, like Conte, and has cornerback cover skills. He'll be able to press wideouts in the NFL. He won't provide much in run support but his speed and coverage ability would make him a solid fit on the back end in Chicago.
Martin is another solid pick, as his knee injury will scare off some teams. He'll likely fall to the third, which is arguably too low for a player of his size and talent.
Johnson is intriguing here, if only for his versatility. He's a bit of a tweener and could develop at any of the three positions in the secondary. His flexibility, durability and athleticism make him a quality third-round selection.
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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.