The Chicago Bears secondary, in particular the safety position, is a wide-open competition. On the back end, there are seven legitimate candidates that can earn the two starting positions.
That level of competition is just fine with second-year player Harold Jones-Quartey.
"I think competition brings out the best in everybody," Jones-Quartey told Bear Report. "Whoever ends up being the safety is going to be the best safety to play for the Bears. That’s what competition does and that’s what good teams have, is competition. When you compete every single day, you have to bring your best, so everybody is going to bring it and that’s just going to make us better."
Adrian Amos started 16 games as a rookie safety last season, yet he's been on the shelf during OTAs as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery. As a result, Jones-Quartey and fifth-year veteran Chris Prosinski have been running with the first team.
While everyone is talking about the two rookies, Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson, it's Jones-Quartey who could have the largest impact on the back end this season.
As a rookie in 2015, Jones-Quartey started four games for the Bears. His first two starts came in Weeks 5-6, yet the results were spotty. In fact, it was Jones-Quartey who was covering Calvin Johnson in the Week 6 contest when Johnson hauled in a 57-yard pass in overtime that set up the game-winning field goal for the Lions.
"The play in Detroit, he made a great play and caught it over me," Jones-Quartey said. "Some things happen but things that can’t happen are mental mistakes. You can’t have mental mistakes. I think that was a good learning [experience] for me."
After the Detroit contest, Jones-Quartey was not only benched but he was a healthy scratch the next three contests. He was again activated in Week 11 and earned his starting role back in Week 16 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was an opportunity of which he took full advantage, as he finished the game with 3 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 1 interception and a forced fumble.
"What I took from that was a different level of preparation," said Jones-Quartey. "When I got benched after the Detroit game I sat back a little bit and started learning how to prepare better. I was watching film but I wasn’t watching it the right way. I sat down with [secondary] coach Sam [Garnes] and he showed me things to look at and keys and things that can make you play a step faster. So that’s what I learned from the Tampa game, just watching film differently and diagnosing plays better."
Jones-Quartey finished the season as the starter alongside Amos and has yet to relinquish that role. That's not bad for an undrafted free agent out of Findlay who was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs following last year's preseason.
"That chip is never going to leave me," he said. "People that said I wasn’t good enough, it fires me every day. It fires me every practice, every game and it’s going to be like that my whole career."
The 5-11, 215 pound defender is solidly built and extremely athletic. At his pro day last year, he posted a 40-inch vertical jump and an 11-1 broad jump. Those are outstanding numbers that demonstrate his explosiveness, which could translate very well into an in-the-box role for the Bears this season.
Due to his hard-hitting, attacking style, there's no reason Jones-Quartey can't emerge as one of the starting safeties this year. That's specially true now that he's comfortable with the playbook and coaching staff, and not coming in cold at the start of the season, as he did last year.
"It’s going well. Much better than coming in in the first game of the year from the off-season and trying to learn the plays," he said. "As a safety you’ve got to control the back unit every time. Sometimes you’ve got to control the linebackers. We have a little extra pressure to know the defense a lot more. It’s my second year, so I definitely get things a little bit faster than some of the newer guys."
Jones-Quartey's comfort level with coordinator Vic Fangio's defense gives him a leg up on the rookies, which can't be overstated. Rookies often make game-changing mistakes - as Jones-Quartey did in the Detroit contest - which is why veterans are often the preferred choice following positional competitions. So with a strong showing in OTAs, training camp and the preseason, it's easy to imagine Jones-Quartey lining up with the starting unit in Week 1.
Having been benched last year, he's fully aware of what's at stake on each snap.
"Every single play, you’re not only playing for your teammates but you’re also playing for all the Bears fans out there, all of the people that love football out here," he said. "It’s highly competitive in the NFL. You’ve got to be on your Ps and Qs every single snap because you can’t just let everybody down. We all put a lot of time and effort into this. We all care about the game and we care about winning. Every single snap has got to be like it could possibly be your last."
He's not getting a lot of attention this off-season but don't be surprised if HJQ is an impact player for Chicago's defense this season.