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While general manager Phil Emery spent the majority of the offseason fixing his defensive line, he appears to have given little focus to improving a safety position that struggled in 2013.
Bypassing on bigger names such as T.J. Ward and Jarius Byrd in free agency, the team opted to sign veteran Ryan Mundy to a modest two-year, $3 million contract back in March.
Mundy has appeared in 80 games with 14 starts over five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2009-12) and New York Giants (2013), registering 143 tackles and two interceptions.
He is a physical presence against the run but has struggled at times in the passing game. After suffering a hip injury, he lost his starting job to Will Hill in New York last season, though he did excel on special teams.
Despite his limitations, the coaching staff is still high on experience level.
"You can tell he's played,” defensive backs coach Jon Hoke said to ChicagoFootball.com's Nate Atkins. “He's a veteran, and he really doesn't get too panicked. He understands football, he's been playing a lot of pro football so it's been good from that standpoint."
Mundy is projected to be the starter at the strong safety position this season, and while his main task will be coming up into the box and defending the run, he will also be relied upon to defend tight ends, something he says he will need to focus on improving.
“I really want to be really good at covering tight ends this year,” he told Atkins. “I think that’ll be one of my focal points and one of my goals, to be one of the top safeties in the league in regards to man-to-man coverage on tight ends. I know I have the ability to do it.”
If Mundy can prove he can defend tight ends in the passing game, as well as produce against the run, it will give the free safety the opportunity to play as a single-high safety with the ability to roam in the secondary.
As it currently stands, rookie Brock Vereen appears to be the team's best option to start at free safety as 2013 starter Chris Conte recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
Despite taking reps with the first team during OTAs and minicamps, head coach Marc Trestman isn't ready to name Vereen the starter just yet.
“The simple fact we’ve rotated him with the 1’s is a clear indication we think he can compete, but we’re not going to anoint him yet,” Trestman said of Vereen to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com. “There’s no reason to think he can’t put himself in position to compete for one of those jobs, but it’s way, way too early.”
Despite his poor 2013 season and having missed all of OTAs and minicamps, Conte will still have a chance to compete for the position, according to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, via ESPNChicago.com's Michael C. Wright:
Whenever [Conte is] available, we’ll start working him in and get him up to speed, get him the reps. He’s been in the meetings. So he knows what we’re doing. We’re going to start over pretty much in training camp with our installation. So a lot of it will be review, and then we’ll add some things as we go that we didn’t cover in OTAs and the coaches’ sessions. He’s gotten the mental work in, in the class room. So it’ll just be getting the physical reps. When he’s ready, he’s ready. We’ll work him in.
If Conte can return healthy at some point during training camp, he stands a good shot of reclaiming his starting job in 2014, but if he struggles, Vereen has already shown he has the ability to play with the first team.
The final safety spot, assuming the team carries just four safeties, will be a battle between Adrian Wilson, Craig Steltz, Danny McCray and M.D. Jennings.
Wilson is the most accomplished of the group, but he has seen a decline in his play in recent years and missed all of last season with an Achilles injury.
Steltz, McCray and Jennings all have prior starting experience, but barring a strong camp from Wilson, Steltz looks to be the front-runner for the final safety spot.