Safety depth chart has question marks

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- A quick glance at the Chicago Bears' second-team safety combination of Brandon Hardin and Craig Steltz reveals an interesting dichotomy.

On one hand, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Hardin -- selected by the Bears in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft out of Oregon State -- has the size, speed and athleticism that Bears coach Lovie Smith covets in a safety. Smith has never been shy about starting a first-year safety, beginning with Chris Harris in 2005 then followed by Danieal Manning (2006), Al Afalava (2009) and Chris Conte (2011). But for all of Hardin's impressive physical traits, he missed his entire senior season in college due to injury. So minus the 2012 Senior Bowl, Hardin hasn't seen real game action in quite some time.

“He hasn’t played a game for almost two years," Bears secondary coach Jon Hoke said. "I think I’m going to have to hold judgment on that, from that standpoint. You know games are different. It’s like you guys and your first big article. What’s it going to turn out like? You don’t know because you haven’t done it for a while. It’s going to be exciting. Preseason will be very important for him.”

Then there is Steltz, who presents a different Plan B for the Bears if a switch has to be made from incumbent starters Conte or Major Wright. Steltz might not have the same athleticism on paper as Hardin -- although he was a 2007 first-team All American at LSU in the rough and tumble SEC -- but the fifth-year safety has the edge in experience after he finally got a chance to see extended playing time at the end of last season. Steltz made the most of his five total starts in 2011, finishing the season with 48 tackles, two forced fumbles, one sacks and three tackles for a loss. The Bears thought highly enough of Steltz, who is also a contributor on special teams, to re-sign the former fourth-round pick to a two-year deal in the offseason.

"Anytime you get out there you want to make plays," Steltz said. "We preach takeaways, so anytime you can get the ball out whether it's an interception or a fumble, it means a lot and wins ballgames for us. So being able to go out there and force a few fumbles might make a difference, you never know.

"What I take from the starts last year was getting a better feel for situational football. Practice is not scripted for a defensive player versus an offensive player, but in a way it's a scripted situation: seven-on-seven drills, team drills, blitz drills, etc. The next step as a safety we are trying to take is understanding situational football. Being out there in a game, you take in all the stuff like down and distance, situations and you try to make plays. That's what we are continuing to work on."

Smith's past track record always has been to go with the superior athlete, which is this case, figures to be Hardin. But Steltz's performance down the stretch last season, coupled with his intelligence and grasp of the defense, should not be overlooked. In a perfect world, Conte and Wright both stay healthy and are in the starting lineup, but it rarely works out as planned at safety for the Bears. There is a good chance Smith will eventually be forced to decide between Hardin and Steltz. So will he opt for potential or experience?