Chicago Bears: Lovie's Safety Dance
This year, the Bears spent a third-round pick, for the third consecutive year, on a safety. The inability to either identify the right talent or develop the talent they have, has played a key role in the lack of depth at other positions.
The safety positions are critical in the Bears' defensive scheme, yet the Bears can't seem to get this position right. In addition to the draft, the Bears traded for Adam Archuleta and Chris Harris and also signed Josh Bullocks, Glenn Earl as free agents, Brandon Meriweather, in addition to a litany of undrafted free agents.
Let's look back on the position, focused specifically on the draft, that continues to frustrate Bear fans on draft day (and Sundays) year after year.
2005: Chris Harris, 6th Round
The sixth-round pick was probably the best safety the Bears have added in Lovie's tenure.
After taking over the starting role from Mike Green early in his rookie season, the hard-hitting safety had two very productive years before inexplicably being traded to Carolina for a fifth-round pick in 2007 after the Bears traded for safety Adam Archuleta.
In 2010, the Bears traded to get Harris back from Carolina, and he responded by turning in an All-Pro season. In October 2011, the Bears released Harris after a roller-coaster start to the season that saw Harris get injured, then benched, then put back into the starting lineup just days prior to being released.
2006: Danieal Manning, 2nd Round
After trading down in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft, the Bears used their first selection, No. 42 overall, on the speedster out of Abilene Christian. It appeared that Jerry Angelo had reached as Manning was projected to be a third-round draft pick.
In my opinion, the Bears horribly misused Manning. The Bears could not decide whether Manning was a free safety, strong safety or cornerback, so they used him at all three.
Rather than let Manning learn one position and grow, they kept moving him around so he never really learned the intricacies of any single position.
The Houston Texans signed Manning as a free agent in 2011, and he had an excellent year at free safety with 59 tackles and two interceptions despite missing a month with a broken leg. I wouldn't be shocked to see Manning in a Pro Bowl in the next couple of years.
2007: Kevin Payne, 5th Round
Payne played fairly well for the Bears when he was healthy. Unfortunately, he was another player, like many, that rotated in and out of the starting lineup for the Bears.
In 2008, Payne posted 88 tackles and four interceptions and looked like he could be a player for the Bears. Over three seasons, Payne played in 32 games, while starting 22 of them. Similar to Manning, the Bears kept flip-flopping Payne between strong safety and free safety.
After the Bears re-acquired Chris Harris in 2010, Payne was sent to the St. Louis Rams for a 2011 draft pick.
2008: Craig Steltz, 4th Round
Steltz has been a very valuable member of the Bears special teams while providing much-needed depth at strong safety.
Over his first four years, Steltz has only started seven games, but five of those came at the end of 2011-12 following Major Wright's injury. Steltz played well in those games, contributing 33 tackles with a pair of forced fumbles and a sack.
The LSU product was re-signed to a two-year deal this offseason, and while he likely will not be a long-term starter, he has proven that he can play if called upon.
2009: Al Afalava, 6th Round
The Bears have entered the majority of their drafts under Lovie Smith with safety as being a need, and 2009 was no exception. Unfortunately, the Bears waited until the sixth round to address the position, so expectations were low for Afalava.
Although he entered training camp with low expectations, Afalava started 13 games as a rookie, and while he was decent in run support, he was woefully bad against the pass.
Despite starting 13 games the previous year, Afalava was cut prior to the 2010 season.
2010: Major Wright, 3rd Round
With the Bears not having a pick for the first two rounds of the 2010 NFL draft and safety still a glaring need, the Bears set their sights on Major Wright from Florida, hoping he would be there with their first selection in Round 3.
Wright has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play his first two years in Chicago but has shown flashes of play-making ability that gives some promise.
As has been the story with many safeties in Chicago, Wright was drafted as a free safety, where he played in college, only to be moved to strong safety by Lovie and crew.
2011: Chris Conte, 3rd Round
Here's a pick that had both Bear fans and draft analysts scratching their heads.
For the first time in 10 years, the Bears had started the same safety combination for all 16 games and appeared to have the position somewhat solidified.
So when the Bears drafted a converted CB, projected to be a fifth-round pick by many draft analysts, such as Walter Cherepinsky of WalterFootball.com and Russ Lande of Sporting News, it looked like another Angelo reach.
The good news is that the "Birdman," the nickname Conte earned after showing great range his rookie season, looks like maybe HE will be the solution at free safety for the Bears (until Lovie moves him to strong safety next year, of course).
Conte ended the season on injured reserve after a Week 14 injury, and the hope is that he will continue to progress, and stay healthy, moving forward.
2012: Brandon Hardin, 3rd Round
Just like the picture with this slide, this happened to me when I heard the pick.
Admit it Bear fans, when you saw this selection come through, how many people jumped to the thought of Jerry Angelo showing up incognito in the Bears' war room and secretly calling in this pick? I sure did, as this pick made absolutely NO sense to me.
Let's talk about Hardin's 2011 season...there, done. There was no season as he missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. Yes, he had an amazing pro day earlier this month at Oregon State but taking him in the third round is a major reach, as the Bears could have likely moved down a round or even two and gotten him later.
WalterFootball.com mentions that no major big board had him higher than the 125th-best player.
Next, let's look at need. Yes, the Bears need safety depth behind Wright, Conte, Steltz, Walters and Venable, and ideally, someone to push Conte/Wright as starters. But in the third round, the Bears had much more pressing needs.
Cornerback was definitely a need, and I'd much rather see the Bears use that pick on Jamell Fleming or Jayron Hosley. How about a DT like Mike Martin? Not to mention the fact that we needed (and still need) upgrades on the offensive line.
The next safety didn't come off the board for another 51 picks. I believe the Bears could have gotten Hardin much later than where they took him.
Safety Dance: In Summary
In the eight years that Lovie Smith has been coach, the starting safeties have changed a whopping 56 times—56!!! For a position as critical as safety is in Lovie's scheme, that's just not acceptable.
The Bears misevaluation of talent, whether it be on bad free-agent signings, awful draft choices or even worse trade decisions (acquiring Archuleta and trading away Chris Harris) has forced the Bears to spend yet another high, valuable pick on the position.
I hope that Hardin is a guy who Emery targeted and wanted and didn't rely on the same coaches and scouts who have repeatedly failed at the evaluation of this position.
While we aren't sure what kind of player Brandon Hardin will turn into, if Wright will stay healthy or if Conte will continue to grow, one thing that I'd be willing to bet the mortgage on is that after the 2013 draft, we'll be discussing another safety selection.