Since Lovie Smith took over as head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2004, it's been a never-ending rotation at both safety positions. During his tenure, the Bears have selected a safety in all but one draft, while consistently bringing in retreads – Chris Harris, Adam Archuleta, Brandon Meriweather – in an attempt to add veteran leadership.
So far, the results have been unimpressive.
One of those draft picks – 2010 third rounder Major Wright – was supposed to be the team's strong safety of the future. Yet injuries his rookie year pushed back his development. Last season, his first as the full-time starter, Wright was wildly inconsistent.
Late in the campaign, after Chris Conte was place in injured reserve, Wright was shifted to free safety, with Craig Steltz filling in at strong safety. Steltz was very impressive during his four late-season starts. Wright is currently slated as the starter but even the smallest misstep could lead to Steltz taking the position.
S Major Wright
Kirby Lee/US Presswire
Let's break down the upcoming training camp battle between Wright and Steltz.
The case for Wright
Athletically, Wright is the most-talented safety on the roster. He has good size (5-11, 204) and speed, and can be a very strong tackler. He's an aggressive player, both in run support and when the ball is in the air. He's shown the ability to cover ground sideline to sideline.
Yet Wright's aggressiveness works against him at times. He often approaches ball carriers too quick and fails to break down, leading to some egregious missed tackles. Against the Eagles last season, Wright's missed tackle on LeSean McCoy led to a Philadelphia touchdown.
In coverage, he too often bites on pump fakes and play fakes, putting himself out of position. Against New Orleans last season, Wright took a bad angle on Robert Meachem, allowing the receiver to get behind the defense for a 73-yard touchdown.
It's these types of mental mistakes that led Smith to publicly call out Wright midseason last year, something the head coach almost never does. If the Bears had had other reliable options at the position, Wright likely would've spent a lot of time on the bench last season. Yet Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather were so awful in 2011 that Wright stayed on the field for most of the campaign.
That is, when he wasn't hurt, which is the biggest knock on Wright. He's seemingly always hurt, dealing with neck and knee injuries throughout last year, forcing him to miss four games.
Yet when Wright is on, he's the best safety on the team. He's a talented player that has all the makings of a quality NFL safety. Basically, his issues come between the ears. If he can stay healthy and cut down on the mental mistakes, he'll easily beat out Steltz this offseason.
The case for Steltz
Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades every play for every NFL player, assigning positive and negative values for each snap. Last year, Steltz was the only Bears safety to finish the year in the positive. His 4.9 rating was far better than Wright's -5.0, which was worst on the team.
Steltz graded in the positive against the run, the pass and as a pass rusher. In coverage, opponents caught just 56.3 percent of passes thrown to receivers Steltz was covering, which was the lowest percentage of all Chicago safeties.
S Craig Steltz
Against the run, Steltz showed last year he can be the extra linebacker in the box. Against the Broncos in Week 14, he was an absolute beast, with two tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble. The next week, he led the team with 13 tackles.
He's not as naturally talented as Wright but Steltz is a savvy veteran whose game has improved dramatically the past few seasons. On top of that, he's a quality special teams player, which is why the team re-signed him this offseason to a two-year deal.
Predicting the winner
Wright has already begun making mistakes this offseason, getting beat in coverage on a number of occasions during OTAs and veteran minicamp. That cannot continue. He's on a short leash right now and a few mistakes could cost him his job.
Wright knows that to be the case, which leads me to believe he'll step up his game during training camp and secure the starting role. Yet Steltz isn't going anywhere. If Wright falters at any point this season, expect him to get the hook. He'll break camp as the starter but it wouldn't be surprising if Steltz ends the season in that role.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.