This year, for the first time since 2004, the Chicago Bears did not select a safety in the NFL draft. With the recent emergence of two reliable starters, Major Wright and Chris Conte, GM Phil Emery finally shut down the safety carousel. Conte and Wright are far from perfect, have both dealt with injuries and make inexperienced mistakes on occasion, but this pair of relative youngsters – both are 24 years old – have proved they can handle the load on the back end. For the foreseeable future, Conte and Wright will serve as Chicago's safety starters.
Beyond those two, an offseason competition is currently underway for two, and potentially three, backup positions. When you consider that both Wright and Conte have dealt with multiple injuries during their short careers, it magnifies the importance of the second-team safeties.
We break down the crop of safeties looking to secure a spot on Chicago's final 53-man roster.
The Front Runners
Craig Steltz (6-1, 210) 6th year
Through six seasons Steltz has shown tremendous value on special teams. He's not the most athletic player on the club but he's smart and understands the importance of the third phase. His leadership and kick-coverage ability on special teams is what keeps him on Chicago's roster year in and year out. Yet Steltz has also proven to be a dependable player when called into duty at safety. As an in-the-box strong safety, he's been very solid against the run and he's knowledgeable in coverage, having played in the same system his entire professional career. He isn't guaranteed a roster spot this year but the youngsters are going to have to truly shine if the coaching staff is going to release Steltz.
Anthony Walters (6-1, 207) 3rd year
Walters appeared in four games after making the club as an undrafted rookie in 2011, then was active for all 16 games last year, starting the season finale in place of the injured Conte. Walters has been working with the second team alongside Steltz this offseason and is currently the club's No. 4 safety. He's a good athlete who has improved dramatically his first two years in the league. If Walters continues to show well in training camp, as he's done the past two seasons, he'll be on the Bears' final 2013 roster.
On the Bubble
Brandon Hardin (6-3, 217) 2nd year
Last year's third-round pick, Hardin spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve with a neck injury. In reality, the injury was just an excuse for the Bears to stash Hardin, who was nowhere near ready to compete last year. Hardin is an amazing athlete with a rare blend of size, speed and power. Yet he played cornerback in college and missed his entire senior year due to a fractured shoulder. Having sat all of last season as well, Hardin hasn't played a meaningful snap of football since 2010. His measurables are off the charts but he must quickly figure out how to play his new position. Additionally, he needs to stay healthy and show some aggressiveness during the preseason games, something he lacked mightily last year. Hardin has a ton of potential but he needs to start showing improvement quickly or he could end up as the odd man out.
Tom Zbikowski (5-11, 200) 6th year
Through his first four NFL seasons, Zbikowski, who grew up in Arlington Heights, was a spot starter for the Baltimore Ravens and a key member of the club's special teams. He signed with the Colts last year and started 11 more games, giving him 25 starts under his belt. It's that type of experience, despite his limited athletic ability, that could propel him up the depth chart and make Hardin expendable. Zbikowski isn't the fastest defender but he's tough, smart and aggressive and has a do-whatever-it-takes mentality. He can also be a weapon for Bears special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, even as a punt and kick returner. It's an uphill climb for Zbikowski, who has been working almost exclusively with the third team so far this offseason, but his field smarts and experience could land him a roster spot if Hardin continues to struggle.
Tom Nelson (5-11, 200) 3rd year
Nelson is another hometown kid who was born and raised in Hoffman Estates. Through three seasons, two with Cincinnati and one with Philadelphia, Nelson has just three starts, all of which came in 2009. He's a decent special teams player but he's buried on the depth chart and is very unlikely to make the final roster.
Cyhl Quarles (6-3, 212), 2nd year
Quarles is a journeyman working with his fourth team the past two years. He has very good size, something the Bears might be able to work with, which makes him a strong candidate for the practice squad.
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.