Bears draft preview: Safeties

Alabama's Mark Barron is considered the top safety prospect. Marvin Gentry/US Presswire

Undoubtedly, safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte flashed playmaking potential in 2011 that could project long term.

But even with a new general manager in Phil Emery, it's unlikely the Chicago Bears break recent tradition in the NFL Draft. The Bears have used a draft pick on a safety in each of the last seven years of Lovie Smith's eight-year tenure.

Don't expect that to change for 2012.

"I think I'm on record on how I feel about Major Wright. I'm just as excited about Chris Conte," Smith said at the NFL Combine. "I just don't think we've been in this good of a position at the two starting positions [as we are] at our safety position right now. So I'm excited about them."

History indicates such feelings change quickly at that position. Although injuries played a role last season in the team utilizing eight combinations at safety, ineffective play also contributed to turnover. Coming off a 2010 season in which he earned second-team All-Pro honors, Chris Harris fell out of favor quickly in 2011, and was suiting up for the Detroit Lions by season's end.

The team made Brandon Meriweather its highest-paid safety in 2011, starting him in four games before eventually sitting him. Meriweather played a total of 11 contests for the Bears. In four others, Meriweather dressed but didn't take the field.

So while optimism abounds now, Wright and Conte could suffer similar fates as others before them given the bottom-line oriented nature of the NFL, not to mention the general fickleness in recent years displayed by the staff regarding the safety position.

It's no secret the Bears have been eyeing potential safeties this offseason at college workouts. The team had also scheduled a pre-draft visit with Oregon State's Brandon Hardin, who like Conte, played cornerback in college, but projects by some as a mid to late-round safety.

The current roster features Conte, Wright, Craig Steltz, Winston Venable, and Anthony Walters. Outside the starters, Steltz is the only safety with any real experience.

"We do need to provide more depth," Smith said.

The next 10: 11. Charles Mitchell, Mississippi State, 5-11, 202; 12. Duke Ihenacho, San Jose State, 6-0, 213; 13. Janzen Jackson, McNeese State, 6-0, 188; 14. Justin Bethel, Presbyterian (S.C.), 6-0, 200; 15. Sean Richardson, Vanderbilt, 6-2, 216; 16. Cyhl Quarles, Wake Forest, 6-1, 213; 17. Phillip Thomas, Syracuse, 5-11, 198; 18. Eddie Pleasant, Oregon, 5-10, 211; 19. Kelcie McCray, Arkansas State, 6-2, 202; 20. Tavon Wilson, Illinois, 6-0, 205.

Position grade: C.

Analysis: The recent explosion of pass-catching tight ends makes finding ideal prospects at the safety position more difficult because of the varying skill set now required to excel. Now more than ever, safeties need strong coverage skills in addition to the physicality required to support against the run. Only Alabama's Mark Barron is considered a surefire first-round pick in this year's class. But there's plenty of value to be found in the later rounds. Remember, both the Bears' starting safeties are former third-round picks. We're guessing the Bears add another to the position in the mid to late rounds.