By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter
11:43 PM EDT, July 21, 2012
12th in a 14-part series leading up to the start of Bears training camp.
It was not until the eighthgame last year, a Monday nighter in Philadelphia on Nov. 7, that the Bears started the same player at strong safety in consecutive games.
One year after Danieal Manning and Chris Harris started all 16 games for the club, the position was turned upside down again with five players getting an opportunity in the lineup. As in the past, injuries played a role in the turnover but that was far from the only factor.
The Bears long have blamed injuries for the inability to find stability at safety, something that dates back to Mike Brown's troubles. But poor evaluations, poor draft picks and sloppy play all have been factors.
Consider that in 128 regular-season games under coach Lovie Smith, the Bears have changed the starter at strong safety 31 times — including eight last season alone. The starting free safety has been changed 25 times with three in 2011. Add it up and you have 56 starting changes at safety — or one every 2.29 games. This makes the ridiculous turnover and change the club used to have at quarterback seem somewhat managed.
Safety is the last line of defense and too often the Bears have given up the big play. There was a bomb to Devery Henderson in New Orleans in Week 2. The Lions' Calvin Johnson beat the safeties deep again three weeks later at Ford Field. Change followed.
The Bears used to address the position with late-round draft picks like Harris, Kevin Payne and Al Afalava.
Harris, currently on the street as a free agent, had a nice run with the Bears and Panthers and was a productive player earning 39 starts with the Bears before he was released at midseason. The others, however, fizzled out quickly.
Lately, it has been mid-round picks assigned to the problem. Oregon State's Brandon Hardin was selected in the third round in April, a converted college cornerback with an intriguing combination of size and speed. He's the third safety drafted in the third round in three years after Chris Conte (2011) and Major Wright (2010). It's that trio along with Craig Steltz, a fourth-rounder from 2008, that provides the Bears hope things will be shored up this season.
But it's difficult to imagine the cycle will end soon.
The organization has drafted one safety in seven of the last eight drafts. It takes time for safeties to develop a working chemistry with one another as well as the cornerbacks and the rest of the defense. That doesn't happen in the offseason, training camp, exhibitions or in half a season.
The Bears need to find a combination that works for them and stick with it. They need one that isn't getting beat over the top from time to time.
Otherwise, change is going to continue to dominate the depth chart, and the wheel will continue to spin.
A peek ahead: Conte showed promise in nine starts at free safety last season. Like Hardin, his primary background in college was playing cornerback at Cal. He has good feet and nice range. The Bears hope ball skills will develop for him as a true free safety, something the defense really has lacked.
Conte stepped into a starting role beginning in Week 6 and showed promise. He should be considerably better this season with the benefits of an offseason program he didn't have a year ago.
But he's still raw. He needs to be in better position to make more plays as he recorded just one interception and one pass breakup. The Bears' safeties aren't always able to make as many plays on the ball because the Cover-2 scheme often calls for them to align deep down the field, but Conte still should be around the ball more in his second season.
Wright figures to have the inside track at strong safety after a season of highs and lows. He showed ability to come up with some plays (three interceptions, four pass breakups and 78 tackles in 12 games). But he needs more consistency and minor injuries that sidetracked him as a rookie in 2010 continue to be an issue. He has the athletic ability but must improve his instincts.
What is going to be interesting is the development of Hardin. The Bears didn't invest a third-round pick because they like him becoming a stalwart on special teams. That is where he will begin. He missed all of last season with an injury but the Bears project him to be a starter in the near future. He's new to the position and will have to understand his keys and how to read offenses from the center of the field. He's big for the position at 6 feet 3, 222 pounds but he moves well.
Steltz is a crafty veteran who returned in free agency with a modest deal. He's never going to wow anyone with his athletic ability but he also is not going to blow assignments. Given the opportunity to make four consecutive starts at strong safety at the end of the season, he did well. Steltz had a sack and forced fumble in Denver and followed that up with a career-high 13 tackles the next week against the Seahawks. His steady veteran presence will be an asset.
Also in the mix are Anthony Walters, an undrafted free agent who appeared in four games last season, and undrafted rookies Jeremy Jones and Trevor Coston.
Glass half-full: Even a half-full glass needs a dose of reality. If the Bears can find marked improvement from Conte and Wright in training camp and allow them to settle into an injury-free season, they could have something to build on. If the safeties combine for six interceptions, that's also an improvement.
Glass half-empty: You have seen this storyline play out over the course of several seasons: Injuries, occasional lapses in assignment, some shuffling by the coaching staff. Multiply those factors by three or four and you have the season in a nutshell.
Bottom line: With three third-round draft picks, the Bears ought to be able to turn out at least one pretty good safety. If they can stay healthy there is a reasonable expectation for improvement at what, on paper, is the weakest area of the defense.
Coming Monday: Special teams.