Who Will Win the Chicago Bears' Free Safety Battle?

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Who Will Win the Chicago Bears' Free Safety Battle?
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

It is no secret that the Chicago Bears' porous defense led to their playoff hopes being dashed in 2014.

If you were to ask Bears fans to name a specific player who led to the demise of that defense, a large portion would likely name free safety Chris Conte.

While the Bears front seven struggled with injuries all of last season on defense, the safety duo of Conte and Major Wright stayed intact for all 16 games.

Because of the rotation of players in front of them due to injuries, Conte and Wright were major focal points of fans' frustrations in 2013.

The biggest blow to fans regarding Conte was during the team's Week 17 matchup against the Green Bay Packers.

The Bears had a chance to win the NFC North division and head to the playoffs with a victory, and they appeared to have the Packers on the ropes late in the fourth quarter.

The team needed one more stop on 4th-and-8 with 46 seconds left, but Conte was unsure of what scheme defensive coordinator Mel Tucker had the team in.

"I didn't get the check and thought we were still in zone pressure, three-deep,'' Conte said, according to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.

He continued, saying:

I was locked in. I'm thinking fourth down and my responsibilities. I'm going to say it's my fault because I was too focused on my job, thinking about the routes they've been running all game. I thought we had a good call to begin with and it's unfortunate I didn't get the check.

In the pre-snap look, Conte settled down on the first-down marker with the assumption that the team was in zone coverage.

NFL Game Rewind

Conte failed to hear/see the change in the call when linebacker James Anderson turned and raised his right arm in Conte's direction, signaling an all-out blitz call.

NFL Game Rewind

"At the last second, we checked into a call 'Pepsi,' an all-out blitz," Conte said.

He went on:

It's up to the discretion of the linebacker. Against a spread formation like that, it's called because we have more people than they can block. It's a numbers thing. Everybody comes after the quarterback and if the ball doesn't come out immediately, you're pretty much screwed.

The switch to the all-out blitz should have put Conte in man coverage on Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb. Because he did not hear/see the call, Conte sat at the marker and allowed Cobb to pass him by because he assumed he had help over top.

NFL Game Rewind

Cobb scored the game-winning 48-yard touchdown on that play, leaving Conte to become vilified by the team's fanbase. 

Conte was willing to take the blame for the situation after the game, saying:

If you want to blame one person, fine, I'll be the person, so put it on me if it makes all of Chicago feel better. I'm not going to go crawl in a hole because all of Chicago hates me. It's unfortunate. But it still comes down to me and I'm completely responsible for what happened.

Because of the struggles of both safeties last season, the assumption was that general manager Phil Emery was going to completely revamp the position via free agency and the draft.

Instead of going with one of the big-name free agents on the market at the position, Emery re-signed veteran Craig Steltz and signed Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray to compete at the position this offseason. 

Brian Kersey/Getty Images
Can rookie Brock Vereen grab the starting free safety job?

After passing on a big name in free agency, it appeared likely that Emery would nab a safety when the team picked 14th overall in the NFL draft earlier this month. Instead of going with a Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor in the first round, Emery took Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller at No. 14 and did not choose a safety until the team moved back into the fourth round to draft Minnesota's Brock Vereen with the 131st pick. 

While Vereen played both cornerback and safety at Minnesota, Emery believes his best fit is at the safety position.

Now that the team has its group of safeties in place heading into training camp, the majority will likely be competing for the free safety job. 

The team aggressively pursued Mundy in free agency, and he appears to have the inside track at starting at strong safety next season. He plays well up in the box and should make a good impact on the team's run defense.

While Mundy has likely locked down the strong safety position, Conte, Jennings and Vereen will likely be competing for the open free safety spot.

After his poor end to the 2013 season, it was already looking like an uphill battle for Conte to be the starter in 2014. After having offseason surgery to repair his injured shoulder, Emery believes that Conte may have to start training camp on the PUP list, but he should be ready for the start of the preseason.

"Yes, he may be on PUP [to start training camp]," Emery said, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "But in terms of that first preseason game, we expect him to be [ready]. Obviously we're talking about a healing and rehab process. It's always a little bit of a non-predictor, but our best-guessed estimate and medical evidence would say that he'll be ready for the first preseason game." 

Despite his struggles last season and his injury, Conte may end up being the team's best option next season.

The addition of Jennings in free agency helps give the Bears another experienced free safety, but he struggled just as much as Conte did last season.

In 16 starts for the Packers, Jennings struggled mightily in pass coverage and graded out with a minus-6.5 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Because of his struggles in the past, Jennings will likely be competing to be a backup and special teams contributor.

With Jennings likely adding nothing more than depth, the competition will likely be between Conte and Vereen to be the starter come Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills

According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and Michael Felder in the video above, both believe Vereen's athleticism and speed should help him grab the starting free safety role in 2014.  

Who should start at free safety for the Bears in 2014?

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Despite Vereen's upside and athleticism, he does struggle with his hands and will need to improve on his ability to catch the football at the next level.

He will likely have plenty of opportunities to prove himself during training camp with Conte sidelined, but Marc Trestman did give Conte a vote of confidence this offseason, telling the media at the NFL owner's meetings earlier this offseason, via the Chicago Sun-Times:

I like Chris because I know he loves football and I know he wants to work to be a good player. I know he's a good teammate. I watched him during the season. We're going to do everything we can to help him get back on his feet, so to speak, and move forward. Players have done it before. He's going to be in a position to compete for a position as safety on our football team. We're going to give him the opportunity to do that.

While Trestman's statement does not declare Conte the definite starter in 2014, it shows that the team is willing to let him work through his struggles this offseason.

At this point, the free safety position looks to be a tossup between Conte and Vereen heading into training camp. Vereen will have the luxury of getting plenty of reps in camp unless Conte returns from his injury quicker than expected. 

While Conte may be the better athlete and will have a chip on his shoulder, the amount of practice time Vereen will get this offseason should allow him to earn the starting free safety job heading into the regular season. 

 

Matt Eurich is an NFL/Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow @MattEurich.

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