Is safety a need for Bears in draft?

Chris Conte and Major Wright are slated to start 2012 at safety. The duo started six games together last season. We break down those six starts to see what might be in store this year.

At this year's NFL Scouting Combine, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith said the current starting safety combination of Chris Conte and Major Wright is arguably the best duo of his tenure in Chicago.

Since Smith took over in 2004 it's been a revolving door at safety. Each season, the Bears have broke camp with a different starting duo, one that never lasted an entire 16-game campaign. Last season, the club used eight different starting combinations.

Former GM Jerry Angelo drafted safeties in all but one of his 10 drafts with the club, with middling results. The best of the bunch, Danieal Manning, was low-balled last year and took off for Houston in the offseason.

Conte and Wright are the two most-recent safety selections, both third rounders the past two drafts. Wright has missed considerable time his first two seasons with injury. Conte started just nine games last year before landing on IR with a lisfranc injury.


SS Major Wright
Kirby Lee/US Presswire

On the positive side, each has the potential to be a long-term option on the back end. Athletically, they have the skill sets necessary to succeed. At strong safety, Wright is quick and strong in the box. He has mental lapses in coverage, and misses too many tackles, but he's also a playmaker. He ended 2011 with 58 tackles, seven passes defended and three interceptions, second most on the team, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

Conte has good range at free safety and understands his role as the last defender in Chicago's Cover 2 scheme. He was rarely beat deep and was an aggressive tackler. He finished last season with 30 tackles and one interception. The sample size is small but he appears to have full-time starter potential.

The duo started just six contests last season, so the jury is still out on these two. Let's take a look at how they fared together.

Week 6
Bears 39, Vikings 10
Minnesota passes for 233 yards and 0 TDs. Conte is second on team with six tackles in his pro debut.

Week 9
Bears 30, Eagles 24
Philadelphia QB Michael Vick passes for 213 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. No Eagles receiver has more than 63 receiving yards. Conte and Wright both have four tackles. Wright picks off his first pass of the season in the red zone, returning it 36 yards. He also whiffs on a tackle that costs the team a touchdown.

Week 10
Bears 37, Lions 13
Detroit QB Matthew Stafford throws for 313 yards, 1 TD and 4 INTs. Wright has four tackles and one interception, which he returns 24 yards for a touchdown.

Week 11
Bears 31, Chargers 20
San Diego QB Phillip Rivers throws for 280 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs. Wright picks up his third interception in as many weeks, as well as a tackle for a loss and a pass defended.

Week 12
Raiders 25, Bears 20
Oakland QB Carson Palmer throws for 301 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. Wright leads the team with six tackles, one for a loss, and a pass defended. Conte is second on the club with five tackles.

Week 13
Chiefs 10, Bears 3
Kansas City QB Tyler Palko throws for 157 yards and 1 TD, which came on a 38-yard Hail Mary. No Chiefs receiver has more than 49 receiving yards. Conte and Wright combine for six tackles.

In the six games the two started together, opposing offenses averaged 249.5 passing yards, throwing four touchdowns and eight interceptions, which was easily the best stretch for the defense all season. Wright especially thrived at strong safety, piling up tackles and earning all three of his picks during that span.


FS Chris Conte
Kyle Terada/US Presswire

Individually, neither player performed great in 2011. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Wright was targeted 28 times on pass attempts last year, allowing 20 completions. His 71.4 completion percentage was 12th worst amongst safeties last season. He also allowed three touchdowns. He graded well against the run, missing just six tackles, but most of those were costly misses.

Conte was targeted 20 times, allowing 13 completions, for a 65.0 completion percentage. He missed five tackles and allowed two touchdowns.

Overall, Conte ranked 40th of 86 safeties graded last year, while Wright ranked 54th. Interestingly, according to PFF, the highest-ranked safety on the club was Craig Steltz, whose overall performance was 12th best in the league in 2011.

This analysis shows that Conte and Wright, despite some obvious deficiencies, work well together. Each player must take another step next year, filling some holes in their respective games, but their chemistry should improve as they play more contests side by side.

When you throw in the depth that Steltz provides, you end up with a safety trio that is very serviceable and has the potential to be good. Inexperience is an issue though and could lead to some inconsistencies. Which is why the club would be better off adding a veteran than using another draft pick on a safety.

One player still on the market is O.J. Atogwe, a seven-year veteran who, when healthy, is a quality free safety that can cover a lot of ground.

Instead of taking a risk on another young safety, the Bears might be better off shoring up some more-pressing needs in the draft and adding veteran depth through free agency.

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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.

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