Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 8/24/12

How will Craig Steltz factor in to a depleted safety rotation?

The mix at safety is always interesting for the Bears. The team hasn’t had any player return as a starter for more than two consecutive years at safety since Mike Brown was in town… the first time around.

In my last post, I mentioned how the safety rotation took a hit with the injuries to Chris Conte and Brandon Hardin. It looks like defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to play musical chairs again this year to make ends meet.

Let’s start with updates on the two injured players, Conte and Hardin. Conte was set to be the starting free safety this year after starting 9 games at that position as a rookie last year.

Conte’s injury is not as severe as Hardin’s. After he left Soldier Field with his arm in a sling last Saturday, word came out that the injury was a separated right shoulder. The Bears will shut him down for the rest of the preseason, but Conte still figures to be the starter at free safety come September 9th.

As a third round pick, Conte didn’t take over the starting job until week 6 last year and he missed the last couple of games due to injury. He’s still a very raw player who acts on instinct and must improve on how he pursues ball carriers. But Conte will still get his fair shake at trying to stick as a starter.

Things aren’t so cut and dry for Brandon Hardin, who was also a third round pick and is heading into his rookie year. Injuries beset him for his entire senior year at Oregon State and they’re threatening to do the same in the NFL.

After leaving on a stretcher during Saturday’s game, Hardin’s neck injury has been seen as serious enough to warrant discussion about placing him on injured reserve depending on the results of his upcoming MRI.

If everything checks out, Hardin seems like a lock to make the 53 man roster as a backup. His physical makeup (6’3”, 217 lbs) is what attracted the Bears to him and allowed them to look past his injury troubles. But the Bears were quick to cook up a backup plan just in case the MRI results turn out worse than expected.

Second year pro Mark LeGree was signed on August 20th to shore up the depth at safety. LeGree isn’t as physically imposing as Hardin and he’s had trouble finding a job at the NFL level. After being drafted by the Seahawks last year he’s found his way through 3 more organizations before landing with the Bears.

LeGree will have a lot of work to do to become one of the five safeties I assume the Bears will break camp with. He’ll be up against a group that includes returning veterans Craig Steltz and Major Wright.

Steltz will be bumped into the starting lineup this week against the Giants. It remains to be seen if the Bears will sub him in at free safety or slide Major Wright to free and stick Steltz at strong safety.

But Steltz has earned the role of “savvy vet” going into his 5th season. The one knock on him is his athleticism, but he uses his instincts and football IQ to make up for foot speed. And lest we forget his impact on special teams.

Major Wright is another lock to make the roster. After starting 10 games in his rookie year last year, Wright has been getting reps at both safety positions this summer in an attempt to improve his versatility. Look for Wright to begin the season as a starter at one of the two spots.

Along with LeGree, the fight for the final safety spot (depending on Hardin’s health) will feature Anthony Walters and undrafted free agents Jeremy Jones and Trevor Coston.

Jeremy Jones played his college ball at Wayne State in Detroit as a cornerback. He’s undersized as a safety at 197 lbs, but he did run a 4.56 forty and prove to be a very smart player in his college days.

The negatives on him stem from his size: at 5’9” he can get out-jumped by taller receivers and run over by larger backs. The deck seems to be stacked against him barring multiple impact performances.

Trevor Coston didn’t participate in the combine this year but was a 3 year starter at Maine and earned All-American and All-Conference honors in his senior year. He’s also on the small side but outweighs Jones by 13 lbs at the same height and runs a 4.41 forty.

It appears Coston has the edge in raw abilities but he fails to wrap up a lot of his tackles. He might be able to stick as a fringe special teams player seeing that he was a standout punt returner forMaine, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands on the practice squad.

The way I see it, Anthony Walters has the inside track for the final safety spot. He appeared in 4 games for the Bears last season as a rookie out of Delaware. Walters went from the practice squad to field action last year and his improvements have carried over to this preseason. He’ll be the primary benefactor for playing time with Conte and Hardin sidelined for the next few weeks.

Regardless of which 5 safeties break camp with the team, it remains to be seen if any of them will have staying power beyond this season. The Bears have spent at least one draft pick on a safety in each year under Lovie Smith so far. There’s no denying the quantity, but we’re still searching for the quality.

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