The Chicago Bears came into the 2012 season ready to let loose a pair of young safeties – third-year player Major Wright and second-year player Chris Conte – as the club's starters. The duo started five games together in 2011 and it was expected they could both grow together and raise their levels of consistency.
Chicago selected Brandon Hardin in the third round of this year's draft to push both of the starters for playing time. Unfortunately, he was placed on injured reserve before the start of the season.
Looking back on the 16-game season, neither starter disappointed, yet it was Wright that truly took his game to the next level. Veteran Craig Steltz served as the club's primary backup at both free and strong safety. Injuries mounted with this group late in the season, forcing second-year player Anthony Walters to make his first career start in the season finale.
Let's break down each player's performance in 2012.
After missing nine games due to injury his first two years in the league, Wright was fully healthy this year. In fact, Wright was on the field for 1,044 of the defense's 1,069 total snaps – the most snaps of any defensive player.
S Major Wright
Inconsistency plagued Wright in 2011, his first year as a starter. He missed a number of tackles and was sketchy in coverage. This season, he vastly improved in both areas of his game.
In 2011, opposing quarterbacks had a 109.8 passer rating when throwing at Wright, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). In 2012, he nearly cut that number in half, finishing with a 61.9 QB rating against. Last year, receivers he was covering caught 71.4 percent of passes thrown to them. This year, Wright cut that to 62.2 percent.
He finished the season third on the team in tackles (71) and tackles for loss (5), and second in interceptions (4), one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Yet Wright was even better against the run. The Bears faced an unbelievable stretch of top-tier running backs this season. In the nine weeks from Week 5-Week 14, Chicago's defense faced Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson, twice. Despite that gauntlet of opposing ball carriers, the Bears finished eighth in the league against the run (101.7 yards per game). Wright, who often served as an extra linebacker in the box, deserves much of the credit for the defense's success against the run.
According to PFF, Wright had 25 stops this year – tackles that constitute an offensive failure –up from 13 last season. When lined up in the box, Wright's run stop percentage ranked seventh best amongst NFL safeties.
This year, Wright developed into a quality all-around safety, one who can serve as a starter on the back end for many years to come. The 24-year-old's contract expires following next season.
Chicago has been searching for consistency at safety for more than a decade. The team finally found it in Wright. Now would be a great time to lock him up for another four years.
Conte started nine games as a rookie in 2011. He carried that experience over well this season. He started the first 15 games in 2012 before missing the final contest with a shoulder injury. He played 869 of 1,069 total defensive snaps.
In coverage, Conte was very consistent. He has firmly grasped what his role is as the club's free safety, which is to keep the defense in front of him. He gave up just one touchdown on the season, with opposing QBs completing 63.0 percent of passes for a 76.8 rating. In 2011, Conte's QB rating against was 110.0.
While he's improving as a pass defender, he struggles against the run. He's often the last line of defense, so this is concerning to say the least. A missed tackle by a defensive lineman could result in a 10-yard gain. A missed tackle by Conte may result in a touchdown.
S Chris Conte
Of 88 qualifying safeties this year, Conte ranked 73rd against the run, according to PFF. Much of his run support issues stem from bad angles taken when attacking ball carriers. It's an area of his game that must improve going forward.
He finished 2012 with 68 tackles (fourth on the team), two interceptions, nine passes defended and a fumble recovery. He is signed through 2014.
Steltz played 113 snaps on defense this year. Defensively, he is stout against the run but lacks speed in coverage. He did not play enough snaps to have much an impact on defense but he was once again one of the team's main contributors on special teams, and he's a leader in the locker room.
He finished the year with 13 defensive tackles and two forced fumbles, to go along with seven special teams tackles. He was signed to a two-year extension last offseason.
Walters made the team's practice squad as an undrafted free agent last season. He was elevated to the active roster in mid September, appearing in four games before landing on IR with a hamstring injury.
He made the 53-man roster coming out of training camp this season, serving exclusively as a special teams contributor for most of the year. He ended up playing 112 total snaps in the final two games and started the season finale due to injuries to both Conte and Steltz. As expected, he struggled in the starting role.
Walters got good experience this year and will likely challenge Steltz for the club's third safety spot in next year's training camp.
Hardin missed his senior season in 2011 due to injury but his blend of size and speed was too much for GM Phil Emery to ignore. Emery selected Hardin in the third round this year and the club moved him from cornerback, where he played in college at Oregon State, to safety.
The transition did not go smoothly. Hardin struggled in the preseason before a neck injury landed him on injured reserve, forcing him to miss his entire rookie season. He'll need a strong preseason to find a spot on next year's roster.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.