NFC North: Ryan Mundy

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Nearly five months since undergoing shoulder surgery, Chicago Bears free safety Chris Conte will make his preseason debut Friday night against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

“I feel good. I’m excited to go out there and play,” Conte said Wednesday. “I can’t wait to get back out there on the field and play football.”

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Conte, along with fellow safety Craig Steltz, were activated off the physically unable to perform list on Aug. 10, but both sat out against Jacksonville. Safety remains unsettled, although Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray have started in each of the two previous preseason games. Veteran Adrian Wilson is another candidate in the mix, but no final decision can be reached at safety until the Bears determine if Conte can bounce back from a difficult 2013.

Conte has been a mainstay in the Bears’ secondary the last three seasons, recording 230 tackles, six interceptions and one forced fumble in 40 career starts.

“Chris had a good week of practice,” Bears head coach Marc Trestman said. “He's running around. He's involved in terms of what we're doing. So we'll see. He's going to play. It looks certainly that he's going to play. And we haven't decided how much yet. But he'll be out there and he'll be competing and he's back in it to try to show us what he can do and we're excited to have him back.”

Barring a setback, Steltz is also expected to play on Friday, along with wide receiver/kick returner Chris Williams, who seems to be recovered from a hamstring injury that he suffered in the preseason opener.

The Bears held five players out of Wednesday’s practice: cornerback Kyle Fuller (ankle), guard Eben Britton (hamstring), center/guard Brian de la Puente (knee), cornerback Isaiah Frey (hamstring) and Mundy (excused).
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Lovie Smith finished 10-6 in his final season with the Chicago Bears before being fired. Marc Trestman comes in and leads the Bears to an 8-8 record in 2013. Yet expectations soar here on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, where crowds for training camp practices routinely swell to 10,000.

It’s easy to see why. For a fan base accustomed to hard-nosed defense and shaky-at-best offense, Trestman flipped the script in 2013, taking Chicago’s attack to new heights with a major assist from general manager Phil Emery’s shrewd personnel moves.

The Bears broke record after record on offense last season, and the defense stumbled to historic lows.

If Trestman and Emery could basically work a miracle on offense in just one season, why can’t they do it on the other side of the ball in 2014?

“[I] feel very good about the competitive depth and the fights for positions that we're going to have,” Emery said. “Out of the three camps, I would say this camp has the best competitive level among the roster from 1 to 90.”

Emery achieved that by loading up on defenders: acquiring a mix of players poised to hit the sweet spot of their careers in Lamarr Houston and Willie YoungJared Allen, and drafting potential stars such as first-round pick Kyle Fuller. The Bears bolstered those moves with an overhaul of the scheme and additions to the defensive coaching staff.

“We started [with], ‘What could we do to get this team better?’” Trestman said. “I sat down with Phil [Emery], and we began to lay out a road map together on how we were going to rebuild this football team, and here we are at a stage where I don’t think there’s a player in our meeting room who doesn’t feel like there’s hope and high expectations. Now, it’s time to go to work.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJay Cutler is more comfortable in coach Marc Trestman's system, and all of his offensive weapons are healthy and ready to go.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Jay Cutler’s grasp of the offense is firmer in Year 2 of Trestman’s system, and his performance this year at camp is significantly different from in 2013. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said Cutler is his own problem solver and is making on-field adjustments so instinctively that he doesn’t need guidance from the staff. In his first camp under Trestman, Cutler misfired routinely, and there were concerns about whether he’d be effective in the regular season. After one particularly bad session in 2013, Trestman gathered Cutler and the other quarterbacks in the middle of the field in what could be described as a turning point. That’s not happening this year at camp as Cutler has become a bona fide field general.

2. Brandon Marshall is Brandon Marshall. He wasn’t at camp in 2013. He was coming off hip surgery that hindered his season preparation. Fully healthy now with an offseason to condition, Marshall is ready to go -- and with full comprehension of the offensive system. Throw in Alshon Jeffery’s ascension and you have the makings of something lethal on offense. The duo has certainly looked that way at camp as both routinely make so many eye-popping plays that Cutler could almost throw it up blindly and one of them would come down with the ball.

3. There’s a nastiness on defense and intense focus reminiscent of the units put on the field in Smith’s heyday. Practicing against one of the best offenses in the league, the defense should be losing more than it does at training camp. But this group routinely bests the offense, with dominating play by the front seven as a hallmark. Chalk it up to a combination of personnel additions and a culture shift brought about by an overhaul of the scheme and the acquisition of no-nonsense, get-in-your-face coaches such as Paul Pasqualoni, Reggie Herring and Clint Hurtt.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mundy
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears brought Ryan Mundy in to compete at safety, but the position, at least in camp, continues to look shaky.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The defensive line makes plays at training camp. The corners and linebackers make plays. But you rarely see the safeties making an impact. That could be a result of a lack of chemistry because, with both spots up for grabs, the Bears are using several combinations at the position involving players such as Ryan Mundy, rookie Brock Vereen, Danny McCray, Adrian Wilson and M.D. Jennings. Horrid play at this position in 2013 contributed significantly to the defense’s demise, and we haven’t seen many indications at camp that the Bears will turn that around in 2014.

2. Protecting Cutler could become an issue if some of the injuries suffered by the team's offensive linemen linger. Guard Kyle Long (ankle) and tackle Jordan Mills (foot) missed the preseason opener, and the latter was seen wearing a walking boot when the club returned to training camp after that game. Reserve center Brian de la Puente is expected to miss time to a knee injury, and reserve guard/tackle Eben Britton still hasn’t returned from a strained hamstring suffered earlier at camp.

3. Cutler hasn’t played an entire 16-game season since 2009. So naturally, you’d think at some point in 2014 the Bears will have to turn to the backup quarterback. The problem is the candidates vying for the No. 2 job -- Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen -- have done little to inspire confidence the way Josh McCown did last year at training camp. For the most part, Palmer and Clausen have been merely average at camp, misfiring on occasion and making mistakes typical of players acclimating themselves to a scheme. The duo needs to pick it up or the Bears could wind up looking outside the current roster for a suitable No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Chris Conte says he’s the best athlete in Chicago’s secondary. He needs to prove it, which he'll finally have a chance to do now that he's off the physically unable to perform list. Conte certainly possesses the athleticism to be a playmaker on the back end, provided he regains his confidence. But time is running out for Conte to make a real push for one of the two open jobs at safety. What Conte has going for him right now is that none of the safeties vying for the starting jobs is making plays at camp.
  • The Bears hired martial arts expert Joe Kim to teach the defensive linemen hand fighting techniques as part of the scheme overhaul that requires the front four players to be technicians with their hands. It’ll be interesting to see how the results manifest themselves on the field. Every day after practice at camp, several defensive linemen -- and even some defensive backs -- work intricate hand fighting moves with Kim for several minutes. The players say the moves become almost natural once routinely put into practice on the field. We’ll see whether Kim’s assistance plays a role in the front four anchoring a run defense that finished last in 2013.
  • Zach Miller and Matthew Mulligan are pushing Dante Rosario hard for the No. 2 job at tight end. Miller is more of a move tight end, and Mulligan is a classic in-line blocker who shows some impressive skills as a receiver. The two have received extra reps because of Martellus Bennett's suspension.

Bears Camp Report: Day 13

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
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BOURBONAIS, Ill. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Chicago Bears training camp:
  • Morning showers soaked the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University on Tuesday. So the Bears moved their session across the street to Ward Field, where the club could practice on FieldTurf. “The players handled the transition today and the weather. We moved some things around, went indoors for our walk-through, came out here for the first time in full pads, got a lot of work done, moved some guys around and we made it through the day,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “We wanted to make sure we got this one in. We had Plan B and Plan C. Plan A worked pretty good and we got a lot of work done.” According to a school official, the same company that installed the surface inside the Walter Payton Center laid the FieldTurf at ONU, with the work being completed approximately three weeks ago. The school’s soccer teams used the field for the first time on Monday, and the Bears were the first football team to put the surface to use.
  • Zach Miller continues to state a strong case to win the job as the club’s No. 2 tight end. Miller put together another solid outing, catching every ball thrown his way during the various team periods.
  • Backup quarterback Jordan Palmer struggled during Tuesday’s workout, throwing a pair of interceptions to safety Chris Conte and defensive end Willie Young. The INT thrown to Young hit the defensive end squarely in the chest. Conte secured his pick in the end zone during a red-zone drill on a pass intended for Micheal Spurlock. Trestman declined to say whether Jimmy Clausen had overtaken Palmer on the depth chart. “I don’t think we’ve had any movement there at all,” Trestman said. “We’ll move people around. We’ll see how they play in different environments and we’ll make a decision when we have to.”
  • Trestman said “it’s too soon to talk about” whether Conte will play Thursday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Conte came off the physically unable to perform list on Monday and has practiced just two days.
  • Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray continued to take snaps at safety with the starters. The club did work in Conte and Adrian Wilson with the starters as well.
  • Brandon Marshall spent time catching punts during special-teams periods, but don’t expect the club to use him in that capacity during games. “Brandon Marshall likes to get into some drills that maybe he shouldn’t be in,” special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said.
  • Non-participants for Tuesday’s session included Chris Williams (hamstring), Eben Britton (hamstring), Jordan Mills (foot), Brian De La Puente (knee), Marquess Wilson (collarbone), Isaiah Frey (hamstring) and Lance Briggs. Briggs isn’t injured. He was given a day off, which Trestman routinely does for veterans.
  • Keep an eye out for linebacker Jerry Franklin, who is taking snaps with the starters on some of the coverage and return units on special teams. He’s also been taking reps with the second team on defense.

Bears Camp Report: Day 12

August, 10, 2014
Aug 10
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BOURBONAIS, Ill. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Chicago Bears training camp:
  • Several players injured earlier in camp returned to action on Sunday, while safeties Chris Conte and Craig Steltz came off the physically unable to perform list. Cornerback Tim Jennings (quadriceps) practiced along with Kyle Long (ankle), after both missed the preseason opener Friday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Defensive end Jared Allen also returned to practice after missing multiple days to be with family for the birth of his daughter. Conte took some repetitions with the starters, but spent the majority of the day working with the backups.
  • Obviously the time spent watching Charles Tillman is helping Sherrick McManis, who executed a perfect punch to knock the ball out of the arms of Micheal Spurlock after he made a catch on an intermediate pass.
  • Non-participants at the workout Sunday included right tackle Jordan Mills, who was wearing a walking boot on his right foot, along with Eben Britton (hamstring), Chris Williams (hamstring), Isaiah Frey (hamstring), and Brian De La Puente (knee).
  • Having returned from an indefinite suspension earlier in the day, tight end Martellus Bennett drew loud applause from the crowd after he caught a pass near the sideline. Bennett stayed after practice to run extra springs with Conte, Steltz, Jennings, Alshon Jeffery, Josh Bellamy, Matt Forte, Armanti Edwards and Josh Morgan. Bennett and rookie quarterback David Fales continued to run after everyone else had left the field.
  • Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray continue to work with the starters at safety. Both starting positions remain up for grabs.
  • The practice on Sunday attracted the largest crowd so far at camp. There were 18,500 in attendance at the workout on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University.
  • The Bears practiced in shorts, helmet and shoulder pads, and the workout was one of the most lively sessions of camp, which is somewhat impressive considering the team had just played in a preseason game two days prior.

Bears Camp Report: Day 10

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Chicago Bears training camp:
  • While the Bears actively monitor the waiver wire and scan the list of available free-agent wide receivers in the aftermath of Marquess Wilson’s fractured clavicle, Tuesday’s practice allowed the team to try out several different receiver combinations. Minus Wilson and veteran Brandon Marshall (coaches' decision), the Bears trotted out a three-wide receiver set to begin 11-on-11 drills that featured Alshon Jeffery, Eric Weems and Chris Williams. Weems, a former Pro Bowl return man in Atlanta, figures to be a lock to make the team based on his familiarity with the offense and immense value on special teams, but the remaining roster spots are wide open. According to quarterback Jay Cutler: “Eric Weems has had a great camp, but so have a number of other guys. Right now it’s too early to peg anybody. We’ll just see how it plays out.” Cutler later added the Bears expect Wilson back on the field in 2014 after he underwent surgery on Tuesday morning. But with no timetable set for Wilson’s return, the Bears do need to find a reliable option in the slot to bridge the gap over the first couple weeks of the regular season, at the bare minimum.
  • Cornerback Isaiah Frey suffered a right hamstring injury at practice and had to be carted back to the locker room. The Bears’ 2013 starting nickelback, Frey is facing an uphill battle to make the team with veterans Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Kelvin Hayden and Sherrick McManis, plus rookie first-round draft choice Kyle Fuller ahead of Frey on the depth chart. Frey told reporters he plans to vigorously attack the required rehabilitation program, but stressed the importance of resisting the urge to return too soon from a pulled hamstring injury, since those types of injuries tend to linger.
  • Starting right tackle Jordan Mills hurt his foot at the tail end of Tuesday’s practice. Mills stayed and watched the final drill before walking off the field under his own power. Mills suffered a foot injury during pregame warm-ups in last year’s regular-season finale versus the Green Bay Packers that required offseason surgery. The Bears did not reveal the severity of the injury, but Mills seemed to be in good spirits when he arrived at lunch later in the afternoon.
  • Adrian Wilson and Ryan Mundy again took first-team reps at safety.
  • Jennings (quadriceps) and guard Eben Britton (hamstring) were held out of practice, but linebacker Lance Briggs fully participated after a knee injury kept him off the field for final portion of Monday’s session. Defensive end Jared Allen was excused from another practice due to personal reasons, while running back Shaun Draughn went through an entire practice following a couple of personal days away from the team.
  • The Bears' next scheduled practice is Wednesday at 9 a.m. CT.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson received his opportunity Friday to run with the first team at Chicago Bears practice, but the move shouldn’t be seen as an indication the team has narrowed its search for starters at the position.

The Bears want to see multiple combinations occupying the two open safety jobs, and they’re making sure none of the candidates become comfortable with the rotation. There’s a chance the Bears will open practice Saturday night at Soldier Field with a different combination on the back end.

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“The rationale is that it’s an open competition and we’re gonna move people around,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “I think what Adrian’s done is he’s kind of worked himself back into playing football, and we’ve kind of just stood back and allowed him to acclimate himself to not only what’s going on in the classroom, but get his feet underneath him on the field. He continues to get a little better each and every day.”

Out of football for the entire 2013 season, Wilson seems to be gaining a level of comfort in Chicago’s scheme, and the staff has noticed that the safety’s conditioning has improved. As each day passes, Wilson appears to play faster, and members of the staff think he still has the ability to play safety in the NFL.

Wilson still needs to impress with strong performances in the upcoming exhibition games.

“[Defensive coordinator] Mel [Tucker], [defensive quality control coach] Chris [Harris] and [secondary coach] Jon [Hoke] felt it was time to move him up there and get a day’s practice,” Trestman said. “We’ll look at the tape and see how he did, and continue to move people around.”

Wilson played opposite Danny McCray with the starters when the Bears opened up team drills and remained with the No. 1 defense throughout the day. With both safety jobs up for grabs, the Bears have utilized several combinations at the position. Ryan Mundy and rookie Brock Vereen have taken snaps with the starters, as have McCray and M.D. Jennings.

Chris Conte and Craig Steltz will also be a part of the competition when they return from the physically unable to perform list.

Conte has been the starter at free safety for the majority of the last three seasons and is a favorite to win a starting job in 2014, provided he returns healthy after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Steltz, meanwhile, has been sidelined with a groin injury.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Based on the organized team activities (OTA) portion of the Chicago Bears' offseason program, rookie fourth-round pick Brock Vereen looks to be a serious contender to earn a permanent place in the starting lineup.

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Nam Y. Huh/AP PhotoBears safety Brock Vereen, who participated in the team's rookie minicamp in May, is adjusting to playing in the NFL.
Vereen took all the first-team reps at safety alongside free-agent signee Ryan Mundy on Wednesday, as veterans Chris Conte and Craig Steltz continue to be sidelined due to injuries. M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray handled the reps on the second team.

"I wouldn't say [I'm] shocked [by the starters reps], but I know nothing is set," Vereen said. "I'm just coming in and working hard. If that gets me on the field, then so be it.

"It's really starting to slow down for me out there. Now I'm able to react rather than to have to think about it."

Vereen played multiple defensive back positions in college for Minnesota, but appears best suited to line up at free safety in the NFL. Mundy is built like a strong safety at 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, but the safety spots are generally viewed as interchangeable.

Here are other observations from Wednesday's OTA, the final session open to the media:

• With Matt Slauson still recovering from shoulder surgery, Brian de la Puente worked with the starters at left guard. Many consider de la Puente to be the heir apparent to Roberto Garza at center, although the former New Orleans Saints starter signed only a one-year contract with the Bears in the offseason.

• Cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff were present this week after being absent from last week's open OTA to the media.

• The Bears' trio of linebackers in their base defense during the majority of team drills consisted of D.J. Williams (MLB), Lance Briggs (WLB) and Shea McClellin (SLB). However, both Williams and McClellin came off the field in the nickel package in favor of Jon Bostic.

• Rookie first-round draft choice Kyle Fuller continued to run with the No. 1's in nickel as Tim Jennings mainly bumped inside to cover the slot with Tillman at the opposite cornerback spot.

Jay Cutler connected with Brandon Marshall and Marquess Wilson in the end zone on back-to-back passes during a red zone drill. Marshall did have a couple drops over the course of the afternoon.

• Marshall did return a punt at one point on Wednesday.

• Reserve quarterback Jerrod Johnson saw action on special teams when he lined up as one of the two cornerbacks tasked with slowing down the gunner on punt return. Hard to remember a quarterback wearing the orange "off-limits" jersey ever participating on special teams before. But Johnson held up just fine during the drill and flashed some impressive speed trailing the gunner down the field.

• New quarterback Jimmy Clausen received fewer reps than Johnson and rookie David Fales, but the former Carolina Panther had some zip on the ball and seemed to have a decent understanding of the offense whenever he went under center.

• The Bears have one final OTA scheduled for Thursday in advance of the club's three-day veteran minicamp next week. Cutler is expected to meet the media next Tuesday for the first time since the start of the offseason in April.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A brief skirmish broke out at Tuesday's organized team activity during a team drill between members of the Chicago Bears' starting offense and defense. Involved in the short-lived fracas was defensive end Lamarr Houston, right tackle Jordan Mills, tight end Martellus Bennett and defensive end Jared Allen.

Teammates quickly intervened to end the fight, but not before Bennett slammed his own helmet to the ground in frustration.

[+] EnlargeAlshon Jeffery
Nam Y. Huh/AP PhotoChicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery had some outstanding catches during Tuesday's organized team activities in Lake Forest, Illinois.
"We are just competing,” Houston said afterward. "This is a competitive sport. That's the atmosphere Coach Trestman wants. We are competing every day to get better. Sometimes people get heated, but all we are doing is competing out there. It's exciting out there. It's a competitive atmosphere. We're having fun in practice.

"That's football. We just go back to the next play and keep working. It's nothing personal. Marty is a good guy. He's a good friend of mine. I'm going to go in there with him after this. Everything is all good.”

Bennett later tweeted: "I go hard every [expletive] day. No doubt about that. Not a single ounce of [expletive] in me.”

Here are several other observations from Tuesday's voluntary session:

• Former New Orleans Saints center Brian De La Puente split reps with Eben Britton at left guard with starter Matt Slauson sidelined due to a shoulder injury.

• Middle linebacker D.J. Williams worked out in front of the media for the first time in the offseason. Williams was absent from last Tuesday's open OTA, but did participate in practices later in the week that were closed to the media.

Charles Tillman's absence on Tuesday opened the door for veteran cornerback Kelvin Hayden to receive a look on the first team at cornerback in the base defense and in the nickel package. Hayden missed the entire 2013 regular season after tearing his hamstring in training camp. Rookie first-round pick Kyle Fuller still worked with the starters in nickel when Tim Jennings bumped inside to cover the slot.

• Hall of Famer Mike Ditka watched Tuesday's workout from the sidelines in Lake Forest. Ditka addressed the team last year following a practice at Halas Hall, and had his number retired by the Bears during halftime of the team's Monday night Dec. 9 game versus the Dallas Cowboys at Soldier Field.

• Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery flashed his strong hands when he went up and snagged a red-zone pass over Jennings.

• Safeties Ryan Mundy and Brock Vereen had blanket coverage on Brandon Marshall on a deep Jay Cutler ball down the middle of the field. The pass fell incomplete.

• Rookie David Fales and second-year quarterback Jerrod Johnson received extra reps in team drills as No. 2 QB Jordan Palmer took a backseat to allow the young quarterbacks to get extended looks.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chris Conte is unsure of the exact date he'll receive medical clearance to return to the field, but the Chicago Bears free safety said on Tuesday he's experienced no setbacks with his surgically repaired shoulder.

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Conte underwent a procedure on March 26 to correct a lingering shoulder issue. The team originally announced Conte would be sidelined four-to-five months.

"As soon as I can get back out there, I'll get back," Conte said following the team's organized team activity.

"But I can do a lot of stuff with the shoulder. The Bears have a whole protocol of things that I need to be doing [to strengthen the shoulder], and I go by what the doctor says. I'm just following orders. I haven't had any setbacks or anything. Everything is going well."

Conte and fellow veteran Craig Steltz were spectators at Tuesday's open OTA while free-agent addition Ryan Mundy and 2014 fourth-round draft choice Brock Vereen spent much of the workout lining up at safety with the first-team defense. Newcomers M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray worked on the second-team.

"There are a lot of different faces, but it's definitely an opportunity for me to focus and work on the mental aspects of things," Conte said.

"Rehab is going well. I'm just taking it every day as it comes and I think it's going as good as it can go. The most important thing is I feel good."

Starting left guard Matt Slauson (shoulder) was also present at Halas Hall on Tuesday, but failed to participate. Weak side linebacker Lance Briggs took part in individual drills but left the field at the beginning of team drills and did not return. Briggs left the field under his own power without the assistance of any member of the club's medical staff. Briggs did not appear to be physically injured.

Veteran cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff missed Tuesday's voluntary session.
CHICAGO -- Washington State safety Deone Bucannon made a pre-draft visit to the Chicago Bears on Tuesday, according to a league source.

ESPN NFL draft Insider Todd McShay rates Bucannon as the third best safety in the 2014 draft class. Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Bucannon fifth on his list of the top-10 safeties in the draft.

Bucannon earned First-Team All-American honors in 2013 when he recorded 78 tackles, three forced fumbles and a career-high six interceptions. The 6-foot-1, 215 pound safety finished his career at WSU with 15 picks and contributed on defense all four years in college.

Bucannon has the reputation of being a nasty, physical player that delivers big hits from the safety spot. He reportedly had a strong week of practice leading up the Senior Bowl in January.

The Bears are expected to draft a safety next month despite signing several players at the position in free agency.

But only Ryan Mundy appears to be in the driver’s seat to winning a start job in training camp. The rest of the veteran players under contract will be forced to win their roster spots, meaning that a rookie could theoretically step in and start Week 1 if the club feels he can be a difference-maker.

The Bears are likely to take a closer look at several of the top safeties in the draft class in the coming weeks.

Teams are allowed 30 pre-draft visits to their facilities.
Lamarr Houston's five-year, $35 million contract was a start, but the Bears had been sending out clear signals the organization intended to further address defensive end via free agency.

Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Young fit the mold of what the Bears were searching for.

While the Bears never had serious interest in former Minnesota Vikings star pass-rusher Jared Allen, Young’s three-year, $9 million signing allows general manager Phil Emery to continue his mission of getting younger on defense, while at the same time stealing a productive player from the division rival Detroit Lions.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
AP Photo/Richard LipskiWillie Young posted 47 tackles and three sacks last season for the Detroit Lions.
Young started 15 games for the Lions last year and recorded 47 tackles and three sacks. But the 6-foot-4, 251-pound edge rusher has a reputation for being extremely disruptive when asked to pressure the opposing quarterback.

Young also has ties to Bears coach Marc Trestman from their time spent together at NC State.

To add some perspective, Julius Peppers was scheduled to earn $14 million in 2014 and eat up $18,183,333 worth of cap space. Young lands in Chicago at a fraction of the cost, and at six years younger than Peppers, figures to have a much greater impact on the Bears’ defense for the next several seasons.

Young probably isn’t a household name in the NFL, but the deal looks solid on the surface.

For all the criticism directed toward the Bears’ secondary in 2013, notably the safeties, the front four needed the most work in the offseason. Houston and Young represent a significant upgrade over what the Bears lined up last year at defensive end when the club barely managed to muster a pass rush or effectively stop the run.

The Bears simply weren’t in a position to wait and see when Corey Wootton recovered from offseason hip surgery to make their second move at defensive end in free agency. Maybe Wootton is back in the mix when healthy (June or July), but with a thin crop of defensive ends expected to be available in May’s NFL draft, the Bears knew they had to be aggressive in free agency in regards to the position.

The respective contracts of Houston and Young speaks to the dire situation the Bears found themselves in on the defensive line. In total, the Bears awarded deals totaling eight years, $44 million to defensive ends, while safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, linebackers D.J. Williams and Jordan Senn and wide receiver Domenik Hixon all received modest deals by comparison.

Instead of rolling the dice on older and somewhat more established defensive ends on the market, the Bears secured the bookends of their defensive line for the future.

In free agency, it isn’t always about reeling in the biggest names. It’s about making the moves that make the most sense for the health of the franchise.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Boldly promising the "Monsters of the Midway are back," while evoking the names and nicknames of Bears legends Walter Payton, Gayle Sayers and Dick Butkus, Lamarr Houston welcomed himself to Chicago on Wednesday in a big way.

[+] EnlargeLamarr Houston
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastNew Bears defensive end Lamarr Houston will wear No. 99 which previously belonged to Shea McClellin, who will now wear No. 50.
Now Bears fans are just hoping for a big impact from the 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive end signed to a five-year, $35 million contract after spending the first four years of his pro career with the Oakland Raiders.

With the release of Julius Peppers and the Bears' last-place league standing in sacks last season, general manager Phil Emery addressed that concern quickly when talking about Houston, who had a career-high six sacks last season.

"He's a good pass-rusher," Emery said. "When I looked at him versus the players that we have on our team, his two-year combined total disruptions is higher than anybody on our team. And I know I've used that word disruption and there are a lot of variations of what that means ...

"The research from 2008 on [shows] when a pass play is performed without pressure, without a knockdown, hit or sack, the percentage of completion is about 64 percent. When there's a sack, obviously it goes to 0. But with a hit or a pressure, it goes to 38.5. So those are significant when you talk about disruptions of a passer. And he certainly has had those."

And Houston, Emery emphasized, was targeted by the Bears because of his versatility, his tackle totals (tops in the NFL for defensive ends playing in the 4-3 over the past two seasons combined) and his ability to play against the run or the pass, both standing up or with his hand on the ground.

"I think that's very important," Houston said of being an all-around end. "Sack totals are important in this league and mine haven't been the highest, but I know that I will prove to everybody that there's a reason I'm here and in the future, it will tell you how good of a player I can be with this group of men and how good of a group we can be together."

What does it say that the Bears put such faith in the 26-year-old former second-round draft choice out of Texas?

"That they believe in me," Houston said. "They believe in what I can do, they have a use for my skill set, and I think doing that is only going to help me get better and improve my game."

Also introduced to the media Wednesday, safety Ryan Mundy vowed to compete for a starting spot with a physical approach to the game.

"That's been my M.O. for as long as I can remember, since I started playing football," said Mundy, who signed a two-year deal. "I'm not a guy who's going to shy away from contact. I like to get down there, mix it up with tight ends, running backs, might even run into a few linemen here and there.

"I think that's the No. 1 attribute I bring to the game. I like to use my size and strength and combine that with my athletic ability to get guys on the ground and get some third-down stops for our defense."

The 6-1, 209-pounder started just 14 of 80 games over five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants, but appeared in all of them, and started one of four postseason games he played, finishing with four tackles and two forced fumbles.

Emery said the Bears will continue to "look at safety extensively" in free agency, the draft and post-draft.

"I feel like I'm coming in here to compete for a starting opportunity, and that's all I can ask for," Mundy said. "I don't shy away from competition. I look forward to getting started with workouts and practices and everything like that. Nothing's set in stone, and I don't take anything for granted, I'm just excited about the opportunity and I'm ready to get to work."
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears agreed to terms on a two-year contract with safety Ryan Mundy, the club announced.

Mundy appeared in 16 games (nine starts) for the New York Giants last season, where he recorded a career-high 70 tackles, one sack and one interception. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound safety played four years (2009-12) for the Pittsburgh Steelers, starting five combined games during that stretch.

Mundy was selected by the Steelers in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL draft out of West Virginia.

With Major Wright expect to depart via free agency, Mundy should fill one of the Bears’ safety spots in 2014.

Although Chris Conte struggled last season, the Bears will allow the former third-round draft choice to compete for a starting job in the preseason.

Safeties Craig Steltz and Anthony Walters (restricted) are also free agents.
Disappointment over a potential deal that never materialized with Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett on Monday didn’t prevent the Chicago Bears from making a couple of cap-saving moves, in addition to shopping Julius Peppers around the league in advance of Tuesday’s start to free agency.

The Bears whiffed -- but not for lack of trying hard -- on Plan A with Bennett, offering more money than the Seahawks, who eventually retained Bennett with somewhat of a hometown discount. But the Bears under the direction of general manager Phil Emery typically devise alternate strategies for adding the players they want in free agency. So while Plan B, C and the other options aren’t fully known at this point, it’s likely Chicago expects to make a flurry of moves in the first wave of free agency and be active all the way through the process.

That’s why the team cut running back Michael Bush -- freeing up $1.85 million in cap space -- released tight end Dante Rosario, and put out calls around the league, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, for a potential trade for Peppers, which likely won’t ever take place. With Peppers counting $18.183 million against Chicago’s cap in 2014, no team wants to take in that salary via a trade. So when a team starts shopping a player, it often results in the club eventually cutting him.

Cutting Peppers with the post-June 1 designation would result in $4.183 million worth of dead money in 2014 and $4.183 million in 2015, but given his astronomical cap figures over the next two years, that would still represent respective savings of $14 million and $16.5 million.

But at this point cutting Peppers doesn’t appear to be imminent.

What does seem to be on the way is the re-signing of middle linebacker D.J. Williams. The sides had been in discussion since last week, and negotiations were expected to continue through the weekend. As of Monday evening, the sides -- although still talking -- hadn't come to an agreement, according to a league source who expected a deal to take place late Monday night or early Tuesday.

Chicago also remains interested in re-signing other free agents such as cornerback Charles Tillman, defensive tackle Henry Melton and backup quarterback Josh McCown. Little information has emerged regarding Tillman’s situation, although he’s been linked to Tampa Bay because of his history with former Bears head coach Lovie Smith. The Bears have worked diligently to bring back Tillman, and it’s likely the effort will continue as the cornerback’s prospects with other teams could be limited by his age.

Melton, meanwhile, has generated interest from multiple teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, according to a league source, which would make sense given the defensive tackle’s familiarity with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. That doesn’t mean the Bears won’t be able to re-sign Melton. After all, the Cowboys are tight against their cap, and it’s unknown what kind of money another team might offer Melton, whose value could be diminished since he is coming off an ACL surgery.

As for McCown, as of right now, the Buccaneers appear to be the front-runner to land the quarterback, according to multiple sources, unless another one of the interested teams steps up with a more enticing offer, as the career backup may receive an opportunity to compete for a starting job. According to ESPNChicago’s Jeff Dickerson, McCown’s camp has been in contact with the Bucs, Bears, New York Jets and Houston Texans.

Dickerson also reported the Bears reached out to Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson on Saturday, ostensibly as a secondary option to Bennett, when the negotiation window for unrestricted free agents opened around the league. Although the sides engaged in preliminary talks, as of Monday evening it was believed the Bears weren’t at the top of the list for Johnson, who is widely considered the best available defensive end remaining on the market.

The Bears are also targeting defensive end Lamarr Houston of the Raiders according to a report on the NFL Network.

It’s unknown at this point where that leaves the Bears in terms of addressing needs along the defensive line, but several potential lower-priced options exist, and the salary demands could drop depending on how the first wave of free agency goes.

Safety is another area of need the Bears hope to address in free agency. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Chicago has expressed interest in San Francisco’s Donte Whitner, who would give the Bears an intimidating presence on the back end. A source also confirmed the club’s interest in New York Giants safety Ryan Mundy, who finds Chicago an intriguing opportunity because he’d receive a chance to compete for a starting job.

The Bears ended the day Monday with nearly $10.2 million in cap space, and it’s worth noting the club spent $5.775 million during free agency for the 2013 season on three starters in Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson and Martellus Bennett.

So as the initial sting of losing out on Bennett wears off, Emery said back in January the Bears will still be plenty competitive in terms of putting together a solid team once free agency opens on Tuesday.

We all just have to wait and see.

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