No position was criticized more last season – and with good reason – and has more questions heading into training camp than safety, where the Bears could have yet another pair of new starters patrolling the back end.
There are storylines galore to follow at this position, starting with newcomer Ryan Mundy. An in-the-box safety who was rewarded for his first year as a full-time starter with the Giants in 2013 by getting a two-year deal, Mundy spent the entire offseason program as one of the starters.
Mundy’s partner in the starting secondary during OTAs and minicamp was rookie Brock Vereen, whom the Bears traded up for in the fourth round of the draft. An intelligent player with good bloodlines and measurables, Vereen certainly impressed coaches in shorts, but they want to see what he can do in pads at his first NFL training camp.
The biggest spotlight in Bourbonnais might be on Chris Conte, the much-maligned safety coming off a brutal season. The coaching staff has remained confident all offseason that Conte could turn his play around. But he is coming off shoulder surgery and might not be ready until the second week of practice. The skill set is there, but can he get his confidence back?
Veteran Adrian Wilson is an intriguing addition. Wilson was a Pro Bowler in Arizona, but is coming off an Achilles injury. MD Jennings, Danny McCray and Craig Steltz are core special-teamers, while undrafted rookie Marcus Trice is a camp body.
Position battles: It would seem that Mundy locked up a starting job, and his contract would dictate that, too, but a healthy Wilson could make the competition interesting. That’s a big if, however.
The main battle comes at free safety between Vereen and Conte – rookie vs. veteran. Based on how last year ended, Vereen certainly will be the fan favorite, but the Bears would be in a nice situation if Conte showed up in good shape and improved, giving them three solid options at a position that was flat-out bad last season.
The special teams battle between Jennings, Steltz and McCray to nail down roster spots also will be worth watching. Steltz has been a stalwart with the Bears since 2008 and played well in his spot start last year. McCray has a good rapport with Joe DeCamillis from his time in Dallas, while Jennings has potential shown in Green Bay.
Contract situations: “I’d love to be talking to him about an extension,” general manager Phil Emery said at the combine about Conte, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Best-case scenario, Conte turns it around, starts all season and gets a long-term deal – with the Bears or elsewhere. Worst-case? Well, as a player who doesn’t cost a ton, he could be cut in camp. He still should make the team, but another down season could have him looking for work next offseason on a one-year deal like Major Wright got in Tampa Bay.
McCray, Steltz, Jennings and Wilson all are on one-year contracts, looking to lock down a role on this team, thrive and potentially get a two- or three-year deal next offseason.
Mundy only signed a two-year contract, so he certainly could have a great 2014 campaign, start all season and force the Bears to get him a new deal.
Keep an eye on: Wilson. A five-time Pro Bowler with 27 career interceptions and 16 forced fumbles in his career did not play last season for New England after a preseason Achilles injury. He turns 35 in October, and having been signed after minicamp, we haven’t gotten a chance to see how Wilson looks. Considering his career accomplishments, the questions at safety and the simple mystique involved, Wilson should get plenty of attention early on in Bourbonnais.