Few safety tandems in recent history have performed as poorly as the Chicago Bears 2013 starters, as Major Wright and Chris Conte graded as the worst safety duo in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Bears did not re-sign Wright this offseason and invested in both the draft and free agency to upgrade the position, yet there are still a number of question marks surrounding Chicago’s safeties.
After OTAs and minicamps, we know a bit more about the position and how the competition might play out in training camp. With festivities in Bourbonnais a little more than two weeks away, let’s break down in detail the Bears back-end defenders.
Throughout this pre-camp series, we’ve highlighted in this spot the stalwart at each position. The Bears currently do not have a player that fits that criteria.
The best candidate is Ryan Mundy, who was the first safety GM Phil Emery signed in free agency. Yet Mundy has just one year of starting experience and is a newcomer to the team. In five NFL seasons, he’s started just 15 total games, with two career interceptions and nine pass breakups. The fact he’s potentially the most solid player at the position says something.
Mundy worked exclusively with the first team at strong safety during offseason activities. He’s the veteran leader of this group, one who plays a physical style of football that should serve well in the box. He’s still unproven but at this point, he appears to be the most dependable player of the bunch.
SOMETHING TO PROVE
Chris Conte’s 2013 season ended in dramatic fashion, with a missed call on 4th down that cost the Bears a shot at the playoffs. Things didn’t get any better this offseason, as Conte waited until March to have shoulder surgery, from which he’s still recovering.
He missed all of the offseason programs and his status for the start of training camp is still in question. The fourth-year player is entering the final season of his rookie contract, so Conte has a lot to play for this year.
Conte first must prove his shoulder is healthy. Any lingering effects from the surgery, or any setbacks in his recovery, will severely hurt his chances at keeping his starting job.
He second must show that last season was an aberration, particularly in terms of his confidence. That will begin in the preseason, which will be the first chance for the defense to do live tackling. One of Conte’s biggest problems, particularly last season, has been taking improper angles of attack. Consistency in tackling has been a spoken priority for the defense this offseason, so Conte must step up in that area.
He has an uphill climb ahead of him but there is still a chance that Conte can resurrect his career and reclaim his starting gig. He was a solid, steadily improving player his first two years in the league. If he can show that last year was a fluke and get back to the way he played in 2011 and 2012, he’ll surprise all of the doubters who have already written him off.
Bears GM Phil Emery moved up in the fourth round of this year’s draft to select Brock Vereen out of Minnesota. With Conte out, Vereen quickly ascended to the starting lineup alongside Mundy during offseason activities.
Yet the coaching staff isn’t handing him the starting role. If Conte is healthy come the first practice of training camp, he’ll likely be inserted back with the first team, or the team may immediately give Adrian Wilson starter reps. Vereen would then have to fight his way into the starting role.
Vereen’s biggest challenge will be grasping the defense and showing he can be a leader on the back end. That’s always tough for a rookie but Vereen is an intelligent player. If he keeps his nose in the playbook and takes incremental steps forward in training camp, his upside could earn him a spot in the starting lineup.
It’s anyone’s guess how Vereen will handle the challenge he’ll soon face but if he rises to the occssion, he could wind up a very pleasant surprise for Chicago’s defense this season.
Following veteran minicamp, the Bears signed five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson, who missed all of last season with an Achilles tear.
Wilson will be 35 in October and he’s coming off a major foot injury but if he’s healthy and still has a good year or two left in him, he could be a very valuable piece of the puzzle this year.
At 6-3, 230, Wilson is a physical presence in the box. He’s big and hits hard, which would provide a huge boost to Chicago’s 32nd-ranked run defense.
With Wilson, it’s all about his health and proving he hasn’t lost a step. He’s a savvy, experienced veteran who will be given a legitimate shot to earn the starting gig. If he can find the fountain of youth for one more year, while staying off the injury report, Wilson will provide leadership both on and off the field.
Early in free agency, Emery inked M.D. Jennings, a starter for the Green Bay Packers the last two years. In 26 starts the past two seasons combined, he accumulated just three pass breakups and one interception. He was the starter on Day 1 of OTAs but was quickly passed over by Vereen. At this point, Jennings will need a very strong training camp and preseason to prove he’s worth a spot on the final 53-man roster.
The team also re-signed Craig Steltz and added Danny McCray in free agency. Both are quality special teams players but neither should be considered a long-term option at safety, with 18 total starts in a combined 10 NFL seasons between the two of them. Steltz has been a core member of Chicago’s special teams for six seasons and McCray was a part of every single third-phase unit this offseason.
The Bears would rather not start a fourth-round rookie on the back end this year. Vereen is a legitimate long-term option but with a defense going through a significant transition, a veteran presence at safety is preferred.
At this point, Mundy is almost a lock to earn one of the starting gigs. Beyond him, it will be a hard-fought competition between Conte, Wilson and Vereen. The staff would rather a veteran win out but if Vereen is far and away the best option, he’ll line up with first team.
If Wilson is healthy, it’ll be his job to lose. Conte is still a decent player and would be a very good option as a backup considering his starting experience. And if the competition lights a fire under him, he’ll emerge as an improved player.
No matter how this competition plays out, question marks will certainly remain regarding Chicago’s safeties in 2014. An improved defense line should help this unit tremendously, so big-time playmakers at safety aren’t necessarily needed. If the Bears can just find some consistency at the position, it will go a long way toward improving the overall play of the defense this year.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.