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Few players around the league received more criticism from their own fanbase than Bears free safety Chris Conte did in 2013.
He struggled in pass coverage and against the run throughout much of last season and was viewed by many as the reason the team lost to the Green Bay Packers in Week 17 last season.
Conte never received the proper audible call on the field with the team needing one more stop on 4th-and-8 with 46 seconds left. The team audibled into an all-out blitz, but he remained in zone coverage, leaving Randall Cobb wide-open for the eventual game-winning touchdown.
Despite struggles at both safety positions throughout much of last season, general manager Phil Emery decided not to spend top dollar to upgrade the position. According to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, it will be an open competition this offseason.
The Bears did sign veteran Ryan Mundy, and he will likely be the team's starting strong safety, leaving the free safety position up for grabs.
The team signed veteran M.D. Jennings and drafted Brock Vereen to compete at free safety, but head coach Marc Trestman still appears high on Conte, telling the media at the NFL owner's meeting 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.
Conte's return to the field this offseason is still unknown following offseason shoulder surgery, but Emery said, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "But in terms of that first preseason game, we expect him to be [ready]."
Despite all of his struggles in 2013, he is still the most athletic safety on the Bears roster. Some would argue that Jennings has played worse than Conte over the course of the past few seasons, while Vereen has yet to take a snap in the NFL.
Conte has sounded like a player this offseason who has a chip on his shoulder and is ready to move on to the 2014 season.
“I’m always going to remember [last season], but it’s just something to grow from,” Conte said, speaking the media after the Bears' first day of organized team activities, via Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “You’ve got to move on. You can’t worry about [stuff] for the rest of your life.”
As long as Conte can prove he is healthy and can get on the field sometime during training camp, the chip on his shoulder from his bad 2013 season may be enough motivation for him to grab the starting free-safety job for 2014.