In advance of Chicago Bears training camp, ESPNChicago.com's experts are taking a look at some of the key issues the team must confront in the coming weeks.
Jeff Dickerson: Except for ultra-consistent starting cornerback Charles Tillman, the Bears’ secondary always seems to be full of potential moving parts.
The same could be said for the upcoming season.
Second-year free safety Chris Conte flashed considerable athleticism his rookie year and could be a mainstay in the secondary for the foreseeable future, granted that he stays healthy. But strong safety Major Wright is another story. Wright improved in 2011 (78 tackles, three interceptions), but he continues to be a liability in deep coverage and misses way too many games due to injury (nine games in the last two years).
But if history is any indicator, the Bears will at some point change safeties, meaning reserves Craig Steltz and Brandon Hardin better be ready to see some action. The good news is Steltz played well last year in five starts while the organization sounds high on the rookie Hardin, who the club is converting to safety from cornerback.
Tim Jennings is expected to be the first team cornerback opposite Tillman when camp opens. Secondary coach Jon Hoke already said Jennings is going to be pushed by newcomer and former Indianapolis Colts teammate Kelvin Hayden, with the loser of the battle possibly given the opportunity to challenge D.J. Moore for playing time at nickel back. Jennings had an outstanding offseason, but Hayden forces more turnovers.
Lovie Smith wants guys who take the ball away from opposition. That’s why if Hayden stays healthy -- something the cornerback has been unable to do the past several years -- he has a legit shot to win a job sometime down the line.
Michael C. Wright: The secondary showed progress during organized team activities and minicamps, and has morphed into arguably the most competitive position group on the team.
Pro Bowler Tillman heads up the corners, but the starting job opposite him remains up for grabs with Jennings, Jonathan Wilhite and Hayden in hot contention for the spot. Jennings, who was benched for a game last season, emerged in the offseason as the early favorite to start. But Wilhite and Hayden missed time with injuries and are expected to be fully healthy once training camp starts. Rookies Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy should add to the competition.
Critics of Smith’s defense typically point to its Cover 2 roots, but in 2011 the club didn’t rely on its bread-and-butter coverage, instead electing to play a good amount of Cover 3, while even manning up some on the outside. That shift in philosophy -- which makes the Bears more difficult to game plan for -- puts more pressure on the safeties. But the overall athleticism of the group played a major role in the team’s decision to put the safeties in that position.
Still, safety is the main concern in the secondary heading into 2012. Conte displayed freakish athleticism as a rookie, but finished the season on the injured reserve. Wright missed four games with injuries, and struggled with inconsistency in coverage. So the starters definitely need to show more durability, and will be pushed by Hardin and Steltz, who deserves an opportunity to compete for a starting job (he averaged nearly 10 tackles per game in five starts), but likely won’t receive it.
If the secondary doesn’t play to its full potential in 2012, it wouldn’t be a surprise that it’s the safeties that held back the entire group.