Despite overflowing optimism from both fans and team officials heading into the opening of Bears training camp, the one position that remains in the highest state of flux is arguably the position that needed the biggest overhaul heading into the offseason.
Of course, we’re talking about the safety position.
As far as some Bears fans are concerned, as long as Chris Conte is not starting for the team in 2014 the safety position will be leaps and bounds ahead of where it was last year. The Bears were smart enough this offseason to part ways with Major Wright whose contract was up, but unfortunately, Chris Conte still has one more year left on his deal.
Conte and Wright made up the league’s worst safety tandem last year according to Pro Football Focus, and it wasn’t close. Out of 86 total safeties to play in 2014, Major Wright was ranked No. 86 while Chris Conte was ranked all the way up at No. 82. In order to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself, the Bears opted to attack the position with volume rather than commit a large amount of cap space to one or two highly regarded free agents.
In addition to Conte who is still recovering from offseason surgery, the following safeties will all be competing for roster spots when camp begins four days from now: Craig Steltz, Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Adrian Wilson, Danny McCray and Brock Vereen.
Vereen is surely the people’s choice for one of the starting spots, purely due to the fact that he hasn’t been given an opportunity to screw up yet after being selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Vereen reads his keys well and quickly identifies plays, showing a high football IQ. Vereen also shows the athleticism and quickness to have success in the NFL.
In a dream scenario for the Bears, lining up opposite of Vereen would be Adrian Wilson – circa 2006. As a five-time Pro Bowl safety, the 6-foot-3, 230 pound Wilson is a roll of the dice for the Bears, but the payoff could be immense if Wilson is even a fraction of the player he used to be.
At his size, Wilson was basically a ball-hawking linebacker playing the safety position in his prime, as he one of just 13 players to record at least 20 interceptions and 20 sacks in his career. However, at 34 years old there is no assurance that Wilson has anything left in the tank.
A more realistic scenario is that the Bears will enter the season with Ryan Mundy at strong safety. Mundy has good size for the position at 6-foot-1, 209 pounds and has impressed in offseason workouts to the point where he has slightly separated himself from the pack in terms of earning a starting spot. Mundy was signed to a two year deal with a base salary of $800,000 in 2014, which can escalate to $1.5 million. According to Pro Football Focus, Mundy was ranked No. 37 overall among safeties who took the field last year.
Ryan Mundy may not be exciting, but for the Chicago Bears, just being average is a huge upgrade.
If in fact Mundy starts it will likely be at strong safety ahead of Wilson, Steltz, McCray, and M.D. Jennings. Jennings will also compete at free safety but he primarily played on the strong side during his time with the Packers. While he is just 25-years-old, Jennings was not impressive last year and Green Bay made no effort to retain him. The same can be said about 25-year-old McCray who was drafted out of LSU by the Cowboys but has failed to make an impact in four seasons. Meanwhile, Craig Steltz will likely maintain his role on special teams while providing depth in case of injury.
This leaves Brock Vereen and yes, Chris Conte left to compete at free safety. Conte may begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list but he is expected to be ready for the first preseason game. Unfortunately for Bears fans, Conte likely has a leg up in this competition despite his miserable season a year ago, due simply to the fact that he has experience in the system while Vereen has none.
Scenarios in which Conte does not start to begin the season include the following in order of likeliness:
- Brock Vereen takes off running, quickly figuring out his assignments on defense and showing clear superiority to Chris Conte.
- Adrian Wilson finds the fountain of youth and solidifies his spot on the strong side, while Ryan Mundy shows enough aptitude to play at free safety.
- M.D. Jennings and/or Danny McCray take the next step by tapping into their upside and elevate themselves above Conte.
Unfortunately, the mostly likely scenario is that Chris Conte will work his way into the starting lineup to open the season. With that said, the competition at safety is wide open and Brock Vereen possesses the skills and smarts to win a starting position over Conte.
The Bears have brought in four new safeties this season via free agency and one via the draft. Each of them will be closely watched and intensely scrutinized as soon as training camp opens at Bourbonnais on Friday morning.