- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is final installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free-agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
Adding at safety seems an annual rite of passage in Chicago, considering the Bears have used draft picks on the position in seven of that last eight years.
Apparently, the fickleness in talent acquisition manifested itself on the field as well.
Although injuries played somewhat of a role at times, the Bears lined up with eight combinations of starters at safety over 16 games with a five-game stretch with Major Wright and Chris Conte as the starters serving as the most stability the team would see in 2011 at the position.
The Bears appeared to find an emerging playmaker last season in Conte, a third-round pick, who finished 2011 on the injured reserve. But the team undoubtedly will try once again to solidify the safety spot through the draft or free agency. Of the six safeties currently on the roster, two -- Brandon Meriweather and Craig Steltz -- are free agents, leaving Wright and Conte as the only other players with experience.
A third-round pick in 2010, Wright experienced an up-and-down campaign in his second season. But despite an overall negative perception of Wright, his chemistry with Conte seemed undeniable. In the six games the Bears paired Wright and Conte as the starters, the club came away with eight interceptions while allowing just four touchdown passes and holding opponents to a passer rating if 68.9.
In the 10 games that didn’t feature Wright and Conte as the starters, the Bears picked off 12 balls, but gave up 18 touchdown passes while allowing an opponent passer rating of 85.8.
So while the success Wright and Conte experienced together in 2011 gives Chicago optimism about the position moving forward, the team must still be leery of their youth -- which makes them prone to mistakes -- and the quality of the depth behind them. Those concerns push safety high on the priority list of positions the team must address through the draft or free agency.
THE CURRENT ROSTER
• Major Wright: Durability continues to be an issue for Wright, who missed two games in the first half of the season and two more over the final four. The safety also has a penchant for making mental busts, which improved somewhat in 2011, but should be even better in his third year. Wright registered a career-high 12 tackles in the season finale, and the staff remains optimistic about his future with the club. If Wright and Conte can stay healthy in 2012, the young duo might solve this team’s problems at the position.
• Chris Conte: Injuries and inconsistent play led to Conte making his first career start on Oct. 16 against the Minnesota Vikings, and the rookie went on to make nine starts. One of the most athletically gifted players in the secondary, Conte posted 47 tackles and intercepted a pass in 2011. But an ankle injury sustained on Dec. 18 led to Conte finishing his rookie season on the injured reserve. Conte provides a playmaking element at safety the team hasn’t experienced consistently in quite some time. The key for Conte now is to use this full offseason to add strength, and to gain a better grasp of the team’s system. Once Conte gains enough of an understanding of the system to start anticipating things, he can pair that with his elite athleticism to start making game-changing plays.
• Brandon Meriweather: A two-time Pro Bowler, Meriweather didn’t play up to that level with the Bears in 2011. Signed to a one-year deal that paid him more ($3.25 million) than any other safety on the roster, Meriweather played 11 games, starting in four, and finished with 39 tackles and $45,000 in fines for questionable hits. Of Meriweather’s 16 games with the Bears, the safety didn’t play in five of them, including the final two at Green Bay and Minnesota. Meriweather isn’t likely to be back with the team.
• Craig Steltz: In starting four of the last five games, Steltz posted 37 tackles and a sack, in addition to forcing two fumbles and finished the season with 48 tackles. A four-year veteran, Steltz also ranked fourth in special-teams tackles (12), which registers as the second-highest total of his career. A free agent, Steltz might be able to generate some interest on the market. But there’s a good chance the Bears try hard to bring him back.
• Winston Venable: Made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State and played 12 games last season, finishing with 10 tackles on special teams. Likely won’t be given much of an opportunity to contribute on defense because of inexperience and lack of range in coverage.
• Anthony Walters: Made the team as an undrafted free agent and was activated from the practice squad just before Week 6. Walters made his debut on Oct. 16, but a month later was placed on the injured reserve. Walters doesn’t appear to factor into the team’s plans as a potential contributor on defense.
Bears' free agents: Meriweather, Steltz
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
WHY STELTZ SHOULD BE A PRIORITY
If the Bears are intent to go into 2012 with Conte and Wright as the starters, that’s fine. But the team needs insurance at the position and at least one candidate to push the incumbents. Through his play over the last four games, Steltz earned at least an opportunity to compete for one of the starting jobs in 2012 if he’s brought back. The problem is that Steltz likely won’t want to return unless he’s assured of a legitimate opportunity.
By starting the final four games, Steltz gained valuable game tape that could generate interest in the free agent while potentially giving the Bears competition for his services.
A four-year veteran, Steltz knows Lovie Smith’s system, has 48 games of experience at his disposal, and possesses the type of team-first attitude the Bears covet. So while the team could stand to bring in one or two more players at the position through the draft or free agency, signing Steltz should be a no-brainer.