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Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Countdown to Combine: Bears

By Michael C. Wright
ESPN.com

With the NFL combine starting Feb. 22, here's a look at Chicago's positions of need and which prospects the Bears might be taking a closer look at in Indianapolis. Positions of need are listed in order of importance.

Position of need: Safety

The Bears made changes in the starting lineup at the safety position more than 50 times under former coach Lovie Smith prior to last season, but it was expected in 2013 the turnover would finally come to an end.

It did last season -- which was expected to be a breakout year -- with Major Wright and Chris Conte starting all but one game together. But the numbers say the Bears perhaps should've considered changes at the position because both safeties struggled tremendously. A team source said after reviewing tape from the season that there was "no explanation" for Conte and Wright's inconsistency.

"I saw with our safety play, and I'm sure that Major and Chris would agree, they did not play at the ability and capability level throughout the season that we would have expected," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "I think they would be their own worst critics in this area; that they would have wanted more out of themselves."

Opposing quarterbacks generated a passer rating of 104.5 on passes thrown in Conte's coverage area, according to Pro Football focus, and the safety allowed a 21.5-yard average on 22 completions while surrendering four touchdowns, including the 48-yard scoring strike on fourth down from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb, which essentially ended Chicago's season. Wright performed worse, allowing a 77.8 completion percentage as quarterbacks produced a passer rating of 146.8 on throws his direction for five touchdowns.

In addition, Wright and Conte combined for 31 missed tackles.

Wright is a pending free agent, while Conte enters the final year of his original rookie contract. So it's almost a given the Bears will target at least one safety in May's NFL draft, while possibly adding to the position in free agency as well.

Three players Bears could be targeting

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Played at a big-time program at Alabama, and Bears general manager Phil Emery has an affinity for SEC players because of the level of competition they face on a week-to-week basis. Clinton-Dix is already well-versed in directing somewhat of a pro-style defense, and is considered instinctive and fluid. The knock on Clinton-Dix so far has been a perceived lack of physicality, but he'll likely be a first-round pick, which might be too rich for the Bears.

Calvin Pryor, Louisville: Perhaps one of the more rounded safeties of this year's class, Pryor entered the draft early. Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong says the safety is one of the best players he's ever coached. Pryor produced 75 tackles and intercepted three passes last year, and possesses range comparable to Clinton-Dix. But he is perhaps a more physical player that will mix it up at the line of scrimmage against the run. Pryor might push Clinton-Dix to be the first safety taken, which again, might be too rich for the Bears at No. 14.

Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois: Not as big as the safeties listed above (5-11, 193), Ward caught the attention of scouts at the Senior Bowl and was named most outstanding defensive back of the week. Atlanta's staff lined up Ward in multiple spots, and the safety didn't disappoint. An aggressive hitter, Ward picked off seven passes and broke up 10 more at Northern Illinois, and has started games at cornerback. He projects as a second- or third-round pick, which might be the ideal range for the Bears.