Conte flying high after breakout showing

October, 28, 2011
10/28/11
6:21
PM ET
BearsAP Photo/Matt DunhamThe Bears were high enough on Chris Conte to cut Chris Harris this past week.

Everyone saw him spread the proverbial wings and fly away Sunday in London, after picking off a pass from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman intended for Mike Williams.

The way Chris Conte, AKA “Birdman” sees it now, the week off to study the intricacies of the scheme should make him even more equipped to soar once the Bears hit the practice field next week in preparation for the Philadelphia Eagles.

“I think whenever you’re a free safety that helps out so much whenever you’re able to anticipate things and [are] able to read things because really you’re breaking on the ball, reading the quarterback and different things like that,” Conte said. “The more comfortable I get with the coaches, [the more I] look at more film, and they get me on the same page as what they want, I’ll be able to anticipate things and be more comfortable. I think really there’s a lot for me to learn, and a lot of room for me to grow.”

Still, Conte has made undeniable strides quickly considering he’s a rookie coming off his second NFL start. The coaching staff obviously saw so much from the rookie that it made a decision Thursday to release veteran Chris Harris, a second-team All-Pro in 2010, who was claimed off waivers on Friday by the Detroit Lions, according to his agent Albert Elias.

Conte made his first start on Oct. 16 against the Minnesota Vikings, contributing six tackles. Against the Buccaneers, the rookie made his first interception, broke up two passes and registered a tackle.

“We’ve been very pleased with what we’ve gotten from him, as a tackler, just a guy in the middle of the field with a lot of range,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We drafted him to someday be our safety. That time is now.”

The move had been in the making since training camp. Prior to one of those August sessions at Olivet Nazarene University, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo talked about the team's group of safeties as being one of the best he’s had during his tenure.

The general manager singled out Conte for his upside.

“Conte really has showed up the last couple of weeks,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said.

For Conte, though, the difference between his first start against Minnesota and Sunday’s start in the win over Tampa Bay was tremendous in terms of confidence. Conte admitted to being somewhat nervous in his debut against the Vikings.

That changed once he lined up against the Buccaneers.

“I think [I had] tons more confidence coming into this game, and just feeling so much more prepared, and a little bit more I think like calm; able to settle down and know that I could be out there and make plays,” Conte said.

He’s also learning to make the most of the new “Birdman” nickname, which might have been more of a crack than a moniker to describe the rookie’s prowess on the field. Conte laughed when trying to describe the origins of the nickname, before coming up with his own reason for it coming into being.

“Henry Melton was the first guy that I heard calling me 'Birdman.' What it is, I think, is I’ve got a phoenix [tattooed] on my arm,” Conte said. “Maybe I look like a bird. I don’t know what it is. I say it’s because I fly around the field; that’s how I’m gonna embrace it. I like the flying-around-the-field part. They gave me the 'Birdman' and I’m running with it. I got my little wings after the interception. So I’m gonna keep rolling with the 'Birdman.'”

Michael C. Wright

ESPN Chicago Bears reporter

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