Bears' second-year safety can cover receivers and tight ends as well as play run tough
Scouting the Bears
8:05 p.m. CDT, August 4, 2012
BOURBONNAIS — I can see the cornerback skill set watching Chris Conte practice during training camp at Olivet Nazarene University.
The second-year pro is smooth in his backpedal, glides on the grass and transitions out of his breaks with ease. It's footwork Conte developed playing outside of the numbers in college.
Here in Chicago, Conte displays that ability at safety for the Bears as a single-high defender, coming off the numbers in Cover-2 and working underneath as a zone defender.
At 6 feet 2, he's a tall, rangy player who has impressed me throughout camp because of his natural ability.
"You have to be a lot more athletic to play corner," Conte told me. "It just helps at safety being able to move like a corner."
That's a luxury when breaking down the amount of responsibilities safeties have in today's NFL. There are no more "in the box" players who do the old school dirty work taking on blocks and living in the run front. Forget that. Those days are gone.
Now safeties have to cover, matchup against elite athletes at tight end, tackle in the open field versus wide-open offensive schemes and make (multiple) plays on the ball.
"You can tell (Conte) has a cornerback background. Good feet. Good hips. He has all the skills," Bears defensive back coach Jon Hoke told me after a recent practice. "Plus, tall guys can get leggy coming out of breaks. He doesn't have that issue. He can put his foot in the ground and go."
I played in this scheme during two stops in my NFL career — Cover-2, Cover-1 (man-free), Under 10 (weak side man rotation), zone blitzes, etc. It's a defense scripted to allow athletes to react and run to the ball.
Get to your landmark in the passing game, read the quarterback and break — with speed. No wasted movement. Plant and drive to the ballcarrier.
That's exactly what Bears coach Love Smith demands.
Conte fits that mold. He's a safety who should be around the ball, active in the deep half and productive as a middle of the field defender where he can show his range attacking the vertical route tree. Plus, he brings the talent to walk down in coverage over a tight end or a slot receiver.
The Cal product started nine games as a rookie in 2011. That's priceless experience in the NFL.
However, there is room for improvement — angles to the ball in both the run and pass game, technique as a tackler at the point of attack, plus an understanding of the pro game, route concepts and personnel. Those things allow you to see plays develop and break on the throw.
"Last year I was held back mentally, played a lot in the middle of the field," Conte said. "I can do a lot more stuff, come down to play coverage, a lot of different things just because I know the defense."
I understand where Conte is coming from. Rookies have a hard enough time finding the bathroom in the team facility when they suddenly are thrown into the game plan on Sunday. You just try to survive and limit the mistakes in that situation.
That changes in your second season when your comfort level takes a major step forward. You are no longer a wide-eyed rookie trying to make it through to the next week. Your confidence rises, as does your production on the field. It's all part of learning to play the pro game.
For Conte, this season provides a great opportunity to solidify a position that has been a revolving door here over the years and is vital to the success of the Bears' veteran defense.
With the skills Conte brings to this team, I'm excited to see what he can do.