- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPNChicago examines potential unrestricted free agents at positions of need for the Bears.
For the first time in recent history the safety position isn't a liability or cause for concern as the team heads into the offseason coming off a strong 2012 campaign with Major Wright and Chris Conte as the starters.
So don't expect a push from the Bears in free agency to upgrade the position. The team likely won't even look to bolster depth considering the expected returns of 2012 third-round pick Brandon Hardin and veteran Craig Steltz, who both landed on the injured reserve last season, along with two-year veteran Anthony Walters.
Hardin sat out his entire rookie season after suffering a neck injury during the preseason while Steltz played 13 games before a chest injury ended his season. Walters, meanwhile, showed promise in limited action, which included one start in the final game in place of Conte.
Backup Troy Nolan represents the lone free agent among Chicago's group of safeties, and the club's plans for him at this point remain unknown. Because of the depth of the position, it's not necessarily imperative they bring him back.
The situation now seems unheard of given the struggles in the past at safety.
Going into the 2012 season, the Bears had switched up starting personnel at safety under Lovie Smith 56 times. In 2011, the Bears utilized eight combinations at safety. But that all changed last season with Wright and Conte lining up alongside one another for all but the final game that Conte was forced to miss because of a hamstring injury.
The duo had shown promise before, starting six games together in 2011, with the team picking off eight passes and giving up four touchdowns while holding opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 68.9. Wright and Conte added durability to the mix in 2012, and the results showed.
The Bears ranked No. 2 in the NFL in opponent passer rating (71.3) with Wright and Conte as the starters, including a passer rating of 69.8 in the 15 games they started together. Wright intercepted a career-high four interceptions, including one returned for a TD in Week 3, and Conte picked off two passes.
The duo also combined to rack up 178 tackles, and three fumble recoveries in addition to breaking up eight passes.
Needless to say, the Bears don't need help at the safety position in free agency.
Walters proved he could step in as a starter when Conte suffered the hamstring injury in the second-to-last game at Arizona. Steltz has started seven games for the Bears over the last four seasons, including five in 2011. The club also remains intrigued by Hardin, who despite having a 6-foot-3, 217-pound frame, is transitioning over to safety after playing cornerback in college.
So the Bears won't be looking to add starting-caliber players at safety in free agency, which means players such as Ed Reed, Jairus Byrd are probably out of the question, as are Louis Delmas, William Moore, Glover Quin and Dashon Goldson, who will likely be re-signed by the San Francisco 49ers. If the Bears acquire anyone, it will likely to be done to upgrade depth.
Here's a look at some of the free-agent safeties:
Patrick Chung, New England Patriots: One of the big-name safeties in free agency, but his production (44 tackles, two interceptions) doesn't seem to match up with his reputation. Chung is also known to be injury prone. He's a starting-caliber safety, so the Bears likely won't be interested.
304 snaps last season over seven games and made just 16 tackles.
Phillips has been plagued by chronic knee problems involving his MCL and PCL. So health concerns will surely diminish his value in free agency. With Wright entering the final year of his original rookie deal in 2013, maybe it's worth bringing in Phillips at a low cost to sit for a season and learn?
Rashad Johnson, Arizona Cardinals: Played 166 snaps, and flashed enough to indicate he could be ready for a starting role. It's believed the Cardinals might be looking to get younger at safety, which could make Johnson a priority to re-sign. Johnson finished last season with 20 tackles and two interceptions.
James Sanders, Cardinals: An eight-year veteran who spent his first six seasons with the New England Patriots, Sanders is a backup at this point in his career. Sanders wouldn't be an expensive acquisition and could fill in to give quality snaps in a pinch.
James Ihedigbo, Baltimore Ravens: Played 294 snaps during the regular season for the Ravens, and could contribute immediately on special teams, and as the third or fourth safety. Somewhat of a liability in coverage, Ihedigbo interestingly has played in four AFC title games and two Super Bowls over the past four years with the Jets, Patriots and Ravens.