NFL decisions typically make themselves and the Bears’ ones at safety will as well. Eventually. How that has unfolded to this point has been relatively stable – Danny McCray has started both preseason games at free safety, Ryan Mundy has opened at strong – but in the preseason game when starters typically put in their most playing time, a “new” variable has been introduced.
Chris Conte, the starting free safety during most of his three Bears seasons, will finally play on Friday. Conte may have been singled out for fan vilification since the breakdowns in the Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers, but he is very much a part of the evaluation process regardless of offseason practice time.
“We worked all the guys in [during practice Wednesday],” head coach Marc Trestman said. “Chris got a bunch of work back there as well. And we'll make a decision on the other aspects of how we're going to play them by the end of the day and into tomorrow. But we'll rotate them around and still keep working this process of figuring out who they're going to be.”
The quirky part now is exactly how that process does figure to be. If McCray and Mundy play starter snaps, meaning possibly into the third quarter, there is only so much time left for Conte as well as for M.D. Jennings, Marcus Trice, Brock Vereen and Adrian Wilson.
One scenario is that the starting jobs are McCray’s and Mundy’s to lose; others involve getting Conte and others onto the field even as the No. 1 unit stays intact through the first half.
For Conte, who has spent most of his year so far rehabbing from shoulder surgery, this is coming down to virtually a one- or two-game audition.
“I did everything that I could not to have surgery, but at the end of the day the best option was for me to have surgery,” Conte said. “So I went ahead and did that and did everything I could to make myself be 100 percent and be the best football player I can be.”
Mixing and matching can inhibit both members of a particular safety tandem if only because of unfamiliarity. Conte and Major Wright were paired together for much of the past three years but Wright is gone and none of the current safety group have played together.
On the other hand, “we have two rookies but we have four guys who’ve played four years or more,” McCray said. “So at times we can just go, ‘You play right, I’ll play left,’ and we just do it. Sometimes with a rookie you try to make it easier on them but it’s been smooth.”
Preseason stats are of limited value because of playing-time variances. For the record, rookie Vereen led all safeties with five tackles against Philadelphia. McCray led safeties with four in the Jacksonville game. Also for the record, both are free safeties, as is Conte.
What to watch for:
Practices were closed when the team broke camp, so daily looks at players’ performances are done, and games count for more in evaluations anyway. This one has particular significance to two established starters to this point in their careers.
Conte has familiarity within the defense, playing with Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams and Jon Bostic among others. Teammates consider him one of the fastest members of the deep secondary, and he is in a contract year; he will not lack for motivation, or an unspoken drive for vindication.
“Yes, we’ll have enough time to evaluate him and know what he can do,” said defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Wilson is the most credentialed member of the secondary (five Pro Bowls) but turning 35 this season doesn’t advance his case, and he is not a contributor on special teams at this point in his career.