Chicago Bears depth chart projection series: Safety and special teams

Chicago Bears depth chart projection series: Safety and special teams
Bears' Jerrell Jackson catches a pass while being defended by safety Chris Conte. — Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune

Our Chicago Bears depth chart projection series comes to a close with the final spots at the safety position and on special teams.

Starters

Starting strong safety: Major Wright

The light finally went on for Major Wright in 2012, as he was one the team’s top defensive players. In his first two years, Wright struggled to stay healthy and to play with more consistency. In his third year, however, Wright improved greatly as a run defender, taking the right angles, and using great tackling technique.

Wright was still crashing into the box and delivering big hits, but last year we saw a player who understood that sometimes it’s better to wrap up the RB instead of always going for the highlight hit. His coverage ability was improved also — we didn’t see consistent blown assignments, but instead good instincts to get to the spot on time to make a play on the football.

All-in-all Wright had a solid season, tallying 71 tackles, eight pass deflections, four interceptions and a defensive TD. His strong performance was recognized by the guys at Pro Football Focus, who ranked Wright as a top-10 safety. Heading into a contract year, another solid season will give Wright the opportunity to get a big pay day from the Bears, or another team.

Starting free safety: Chris Conte

Players coming into their third year are many times in their best position to have that breakout season; we saw that last year with Conte’s teammate Wright. Conte could not only have a 2013 similar to Wright’s 2012, but he has the potential to have a better one. Conte is more gifted athletically and is playing a position that will give him opportunities to develop into a pure playmaker.

At 6-2, 203 pounds, Conte is a big, athletic FS who possess great speed and quickness to cover the deep half of the field and most times centerfield in Cover-1. Last season Conte took a step forward, improving in coverage and adding a physical aspect to his game, but he still has room for improvement. Against the run, he can take bad angles and allow opposing RBs to break off big gains.

He improved in coverage, but I would love to see Conte make more plays on the football in terms of interceptions (his nine pass deflections were pretty impressive, however). Expectations are high for Conte in 2013.

Backups

Craig Steltz

Steltz seems to always have the top backup spot lockdown each and every year, and for good reason. He’s a smart, instinctive player who knows the defensive system very well, and he’s a special team standout. Steltz is best when he’s coming down in the box and defending against the run, so it’s interesting to see him listed as a FS on the team’s first unofficial depth chart instead of SS. We should expect Steltz once again to be that dependable backup and special teams ace in 2013.

Anthony Walters

Walters made his first career start last year against the Detroit Lions in the final game of the season. He flashed some potential, but the inexperience was pretty obvious. Walters is a pretty decent athlete, who if the season started right now, would be the fourth safety on the depth chart. He will be one of the players I will keep an eye on in the upcoming preseason games.

Brandon Hardin

Last year’s third-round pick, Hardin was put on injured reserve with a neck injury he suffered in the preseason, so this is virtually his rookie season. Hardin was considered a reach in last year’s draft, but G.M. Phil Emery fell in love with his combination of size and athleticism. The former Beaver is a rock solid 217 pounds with great quickness and speed. He has all the physical tools to develop into a star SS but needs more work on technique and the fundamentals of the safety position (played CB in college).

Preseason and another year behind Wright could benefit Hardin in the future as he’s not ready to compete for a starting job this early in his career. With Wright becoming a free agent after this year, there’s a possibility Hardin could be getting groomed for that starting position.

Safety (5)

Special Teams

Kicker: Robbie Gould  

With all of the important contracts coming up expired after this year, this quite possibly could be the last time we see Gould in a Bears uniform. The fourth most accurate kicker in NFL history will be in high demand once he hits the open market next year. Gould has gotten better with long distance kicks and starting kick-offs, and I expect another solid season from the longtime vet.

Punter: Adam Podlesh

Podlesh’s inconsistency last season has gotten him in a training camp battle with UDFA punter Tress Way for the starting job. Although the rookie has a very strong leg, he’s one dimensional and struggles with directional kicking. I feel Podlesh will squeak by with the starting job with Way possibly being added to the practice squad.

Kick/punt returner: Devin Hester

Bears fans are expecting Hester to return back to, at least, his 2011 form as a returner since he is no longer apart of the offense. I don’t think Hester can duplicate similar success of previous years, simply because he has lost a step at 30-years old. However, Hester is still a dangerous player, fully capable of taking one back or providing the Bears’ offense with great field position.

There are going to be growing pains in this offense early in the year, but Hester can ease those pains by providing them with a shorter field to work with. With all of his focus on special teams, we should see a solid season from Hester.

Thus concludes our Chicago Bears depth chart projection series. We hope you read and enjoyed them all!

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