Chicago Bears: Winston Venable
Venable appeared in 12 games in 2011 and finished tied for fifth on the club with 10 special teams tackles.
Venable was likely deemed expendable after the Bears spent a considerable chunk of the offseason strengthening their special teams via free agency and the draft. They also used a third-round pick to select Brandon Hardin out of Oregon State, a collegiate cornerback who the Bears plan to convert to a strong safety.
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
• 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
• Tyvon Branch, Oakland Raiders, unrestricted
• Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers, unrestricted
• Dwight Lowery, Jacksonville Jaguars, unrestricted
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.
Walters, an undrafted free agent who spent the first five weeks of the season on the practice squad, played four games for the Bears this season.
Venable, who was waived by the Bears on Oct. 11, appeared in five games for the Bears with five special teams tackles.
Stephens, a seventh-round selection (228th overall) of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010, spent the entire 2010 season on the Bengals active roster but was inactive for all 16 contests. The Bengals released him after the 2011 preseason.
Venable appeared in five games and was in on two tackles. Walters spent the first five weeks on the Bears' practice squad after joining them as an undrafted free agent out of Delaware.
The Bears also signed receiver Max Komar and defensive end Jake Laptad to the practice squad Tuesday and terminated the practice squad contracts of receiver Kris Adams and running back Armando Allen.
Komar appeared in eight games for the Arizona Cardinals last season, catching 12 passes for 117 yards. Laptad, an undrafted rookie free agent from Kansas, spent the preseason with the Bears.
CHICAGO -- The Bears are expected to begin trimming down the roster on Friday morning, which could lead to a stressful 24 hours for those players on the bubble. Here's some reaction from a few bubble players who spoke in the postgame locker room following the Bears 24-14 victory over Cleveland to close the preseason.
Safety Winston Venable: "I think I could have done a little better on special teams [Thursday night], there were a few opportunities I missed, but overall, I put in one-hundred percent effort and deep down that's all I can ask for. I tried my best, so whatever happens, happens. It (camp) was difficult, there was a big learning curve, especially with the defense. But I slowly progressed learning the defense, but understood special teams is the mark I have to make, so I just wanted to focus on that especially. I think I did well. I think it's all up in the air right now. The coaches will do some more evaluating and make some decisions here soon."
Defensive end Mario Addison: "I think the coaches are looking for if you can make it through the whole game, and I did, thank goodness. This is a veteran team, so I told myself, I got to do something to show the coaches I'm worthy of playing on this team. I have some speed, so I try and use that to my advantage. That's what I hope the coaches noticed, I wanted to open some eyes with my speed. But I'm not going to lie, I'm nervous. I've never been this nervous in my whole life."
Running back Robert Hughes: "I don't look at that [final cuts]. Those are things I can't control. I was taught that you don't worry about things you can't control and just go forth with everything that has happened and work hard. That's the thing that's going to win out in the end."
Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher: "The coaches gave me every chance in the world to make this team, so whatever happens, happens."