Offseason Review: The Last Line of the Defense, Part 1

ConteIf there’s one universally held theory as to which area of the Bears roster needs to be improved this offseason, it’s that there needs to be an upgrade at safety. I’d describe the play of Chris Conte and Major Wright as “oft-maligned”, but that would be an understatement. That’s not to say they weren’t put in tough positions; too often, defensive breakdowns in front of the safeties would require a do-or-die play. Opposing running backs would be upon the secondary in an instant due to massive holes allowed by the defensive line and linebackers, requiring a perfect angle or a touchdown saving tackle. And the lack of any sort of consistent pass rush meant that Conte and Wright (and Craig Steltz, when he was forced to start) were asked to cover receivers for unreasonably long stretches.

However, despite the situation, there were simply too many breakdowns in technique and awareness to excuse. If the Bears don’t have at least one new starter at the position in 2014, I would be absolutely surprised; I’d be somewhat surprised if there wasn’t an entirely new pair. Part of what drives that suspicion is that there are currently only two safeties under contract; 2013 starter Major Wright is a free agent, as is Craig Steltz, the top backup. (Young backup Anthony Walters is a restricted free agent.) I’ll take a look at those players tomorrow; today, I’ll focus on the players under contract, starting with one of the most derided players in the sport.

Chris Conte, FS

It’s rare that a season can be summed up in one microcosm of a play, but as much as that can be true it’s what happened to Chris Conte late in the season finale against the Packers. It was Conte’s mistake (due to either a miscommunication or a lack of awareness) that led to Randall Cobb being wide open for a game-sealing Packer touchdown. That’s just how 2013 went for Conte. In his minimal defense, Conte did have an interception earlier in the game, and he had three of those on the season. He also stayed remarkably durable; he played 99% of the Bears defensive snaps on the season. But those snaps came in service of an historically bad defense, and his incompetence played a big role in that defensive ineptitude. Going off of my own visual impression, he was extremely poor against the run, routinely taking poor angles and getting beaten in space by ballcarriers. His pass defense skills are, by default, a bit more palatable, but nothing I’d be willing to call “good”; they’re merely the lesser of the two evils. He also seems to lead the team in friendly-fire shots to teammates, and many of those seemingly break up ready-made interception opportunities. (That’s not a scientific observation. It just feels that way.)

So Conte will be gone, right? Surely the Bears can’t go into 2014 with him penciled in as a starter? Probably not, although cutting him outright might not be the best of strategies. He was a third-round pick in 2011, and 2014 will be the last year on Conte’s rookie contract. That salary number is not that bad for a backup player, which is more in line with what Conte’s level of play has been. Teams need a full roster, and having a player of Conte’s athletic ability and experience on the bench for rookie wages is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. I’m sure the Bears will bring him to camp, alongside whatever new faces they decide to try at the position. If he plays well in camp and during the preseason, demonstrating positive development, he’ll probably make the team. If he doesn’t, and some of the new players clearly outclass him, then I’d expect him to be gone. (The same treatment J’Marcus Webb got last offseason.)

The only outcome that would bother me would be if he’s starting Week 1 of the regular season. There was nothing about his 2013, nor his previous two seasons, that leads me to believe that would be a good idea. If he’s starting, that likely means something will have gone terribly wrong.

Sean Cattouse, S

Believe it or not, Cattouse actually appeared in a game, taking 15 special teams snaps against the Vikings in Week 13. Prior to that he’d been on the practice squad, and he was released after the Cleveland game in Week 15. He was then signed to a reserve/future contract on December 30th. I won’t pretend to have a wealth of Sean Cattouse knowledge, but he’s 6’2″, 215, so his size is prototypical. But he ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at the combine, (he went undrafted in 2012, and played some for teh Chargers in 2012) which is not exactly a time to get excited about. He’s likely a depth/special teams player for 2014 if he makes the roster.

Jay Rigdon is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation Bears, and can also be found @BearsBN on Twitter.