The Chicago Bears strolled into the 2012 offseason with little experience at the safety position. The four safeties expected to make the roster have a combined 27 starts between them. The two starters have just 20 starts combined.
Strong safety Major Wright is entering his third season, while free safety Chris Conte was a rookie last year. Backup Craig Steltz has started seven games in four seasons, his contributions coming mainly on special teams, while Brandon Hardin is a fourth-round rookie.
It's easy to see why there has been a lot of concern revolving around the team's safeties. Lack of experience combined with inconsistent play has everyone guessing how good this unit can be.
And that was when they were healthy.
S Brandon Hardin
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
During the club's second preseason game against the Washington Redskins, both Conte and Hardin were knocked out of the contest due to injury. Conte suffered a shoulder stinger, while Hardin had to be carted off due to a neck injury. It's anyone's guess at this point when either will return, although Hardin will likely be out longer than Conte due to the severity of his injury.
"He's day to day right now," coach Lovie Smith said after yesterday's practice. "He has a neck injury. So if you can find someone who can pinpoint exactly when he'll be back, let me know. We'll start using him. Really can't tell you a lot more than that. He's back up here and he's getting better."
NFL teams tend to be cautious with neck injuries, so it could be a while before Hardin makes his return to the field. In his absence, Anthony Walters will get reps at free safety with the backups. Walters spent the first six weeks of 2011 on Chicago's practice squad before being called up in mid October. He played on special teams the following four games before being place on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. For Walters, a fringe NFL player, the next few weeks will be the most important of his career.
"I had a couple of chances since I've been here so far and I kind of look at every opportunity the same," Walters said. "This one I'll have more chances, more reps to prove myself."
Smith said Walters has shown himself both as a safety and on special teams, which is why he's hopeful Walters can again contribute this season, possibly as the team's fifth safety.
"It's a definite opportunity; Anthony Walters played well," said Smith. "We asked him to improve his play from the first game. He did that as a safety and also as a special teams player. That's what you find out when guys get cast in different roles, you'll see that they can do a little bit more than you thought they could."
With Conte out, Steltz will also get a shot at moving up the roster. Last season, Steltz started the last four contests and graded out very well, particularly against the run. Against the power rushing attack of the Denver Broncos, he showed he can be a highly productive in-the-box safety.
"We all need to be ready at any time to step in where there are injuries. That's the way we do things here. Whatever I need to do and whenever I'm called, I'll be ready to go. The reason I've lasted so long at this position is because I take each day on its own. I never look too far ahead and I don't worry about the situation."
S Craig Steltz
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
Steltz has been pushing Major Wright for playing time all camp. Yet, for the time being, the two will line up next to each other, Steltz at strong safety and Wright at free safety.
"Craig, he's a vet," Wright said. "He's one of the older guys in the room. Everybody looks up to him because he's been in this defense for so many years. We both communicate. We feel like we're on the same page in every defense."
Wright has also dealt with his fair share of injuries during his first two seasons. He missed the first five games of his rookie campaign with a hamstring injury, then missed four games last season with neck and hamstring injuries.
"It's always frustrating for me. I've dealt with [injuries] for two years," said Wright. "It's something that you just have to deal with, put it in your past and build on. I learned that. Just get over it. Things happen. Come back strong."
Needless to say, if Wright again goes down, the defense will be in bad shape. The secondary finished 28th in the league last year against the pass, due mainly to poor play on the back end. If this group succumbs to the injury bug again in 2012, there's no reason to think the defense will improve in coverage.
Still, Wright believes for a player to be successful in the NFL, he has to put the threat of injury out of his mind and just play.
"You can't let it affect the way you play," Wright said. "This is a game you've been playing for however many years you've been playing; for me all my life. I can't change the way I've been doing things all my life."
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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.