Bears analysis: No security at safety position
Former third-round draft pick Major Wright has yet to establish himself as a solid starting safety for the Bears. (Brian Cassella/Tribune Photo)
By Brad Biggs, Tribune reporter 11:40 a.m. CST, January 18, 2012
Eighth in a 10-part series
A year after the Chicago Bears had both safeties start all 16 games for the first time since 2001, there was more change than ever in 2011.
The Bears had a different starting combination in six of the first seven games and used a total of eight combinations in a dizzying rate of turnover that exceeded anything weíve seen during the Lovie Smith era. The strong safety didnít have consecutive starts until Nov. 7 and Nov. 13. Starting safeties now have changed 56 times under Smith since 2004.
In the past, Smith has attributed much of the turnover to injuries at the position. That has been an issue and it was again as rookies Chris Conte and Anthony Walters finished on injured reserve. But talent misevaluation also has been at the core of the Bearsí problems. There no better example than the Sept. 4 signing of New England Patriots castoff Brandon Meriweather. The Bears viewed the former two-time Pro Bowl performer as a potential upgrade and signed him to a $3.25 million, one-year contract, nearly double what the Patriots were scheduled to pay him.
Meriweather was a flop. He dressed but did not play in four games, including the season finale at Minnesota. Meriweather had a rap for being an undisciplined player in New England and he validated that quickly. While Chris Harris paid for his misdeeds with his job during the middle of the season -- being placed on waivers Oct. 27, two weeks after a particularly poor showing against the Detroit Lions -- Meriweather stuck around to the end. Harris was earning less than half of what Meriweather was, and that didnít say a lot for accountability.
Roll call: Major Wright (signed through 2013), Craig Steltz (unrestricted free agent), Chris Conte (signed through 2014), Brandon Meriweather (unrestricted free agent), Anthony Walters (signed through 2013), Winston Venable (signed through 2013), Chris Harris (waived).
2011 review: The first decision the Bears made at the position was to pass on Danieal Manning in free agency. The team tried to re-sign him on the cheap before the 2010 season ended but he smartly went into free agency where he cashed in with a $20 million, four-year contract with $9 million guaranteed from the Houston Texans. That meant Harris was the only í10 starter to return as he was paired with Wright, a former third-round draft pick projected to be a playmaker. The shakeup started immediately. Harris suffered a hamstring pull in the opener against the Atlanta Falcons and minor injuries that plagued Wright as a rookie in í10 continued to be an issue. The carousel cranked up from there and Meriweather, Conte and Steltz all rotated through as starters.
Poor play by the safeties punctuated road losses at New Orleans and Detroit and after that Conte, a third-round draft pick from California, was inserted into the starting lineup. The Bears described Conte, a converted cornerback in college, as an ideal free safety because of his speed and range. He displayed that and got a better understanding for the defensive scheme as the season went along.
If there is a positive to take out of the season, itís that the most-used combination was Wright and Conte, a pairing the Bears would like to see pan out because both are young draft picks. Wright had a playmaking stretch in the second half of the season and made three interceptions to go with 78 tackles, which ranked fifth on the defense. In limited time, Steltz had 48 tackles to rank ninth and Conte was next with 47.
Free agency/draft priority: Like it or not, this joins defensive end and cornerback as a need area for the defense once again. Because the Bears have failed to hit in the draft at these positions over and over again, it makes it more difficult to place a priority on a young linebacker or two to begin developing behind starters Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. What the Bears wound up doing under former general manager Jerry Angelo was re-draft positions where they had failed. An easy addition would be Steltz. Heís a free agent and if the Bears can retain him with a modest deal theyíll have someone who understands the defense and has a track record for durability. But thatís not enough. Wright and Conte are still largely unproven and made too many mistakes to be counted on without an insurance plan that also offers upside. Walters is just a project and Venable lacks the range to be much more than a special teams consideration. So, the Bears will have to either seek a more disciplined option in free agency that will arrive with less baggage than Meriweather or try once again in the draft. For years, Angelo and Smith tried to hit with late-round picks. Recently, theyíve shifted to mid-round picks. What would help most is if Wright and Conte can step forward next season. That would take a lot of pressure off the situation, but the best-laid plans at safety have rarely worked for Smith.
Looking ahead: The Bears will have to import at least two safeties and probably give one of them a chance to compete for the job and push the former third-round picks Wright and Conte. The high turnover rate has exposed the defense because the last layer has been exposed too often. Itís time to tighten this up.
Bottom line: The Bears still lack a consistent playmaker. There are some in-house candidates with a little bit of experience, but Conte and Wright combined have 20 NFL starts. Thatís a starting point.
Thursday: Offensive line
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