Chris Conte surgery muddies safety spot

Unstable became more even more wobbly with regards to the safety position headed into 2014 on Thursday, when the Chicago Bears announced Chris Conte would miss four to five months after having shoulder surgery.

The setback comes at a difficult time for Conte, who after a subpar 2013 campaign, finds himself in the position where he’ll have to compete to keep his starting job next season. Though it’s easy to point to Conte’s struggles last season and say the Bears might be better off going a different direction, as of right now, he’s the only truly proven commodity at the safety position.

Yes, he played badly in 2013.

But going into the season, Conte was expected to put together a breakout year after a 2012 season in which he posted 68 tackles, picked off two passes and contributed another nine pass breakups. In 2013, Conte posted 90 tackles, intercepted three passes, and broke up seven others.

Even after the shoulder surgery, I expect Conte to wind up as one of Chicago’s starting safeties. Why? He’s arguably the secondary’s most gifted player in terms of raw physical talent coming off a bad 2013 season and going into a contract year.

“He knows he’s got to get better,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said back in Feb. at the NFL combine. “He’s working in any way he can at this point in time, working out, and training to get himself started. I think he knows he didn’t play as well as he could play. He’s moving forward, which is a good thing.”

Obviously, the shoulder should set Conte back significantly enough to land him on the physically unable to perform list at the start of camp. That, in turn, would make it more difficult for Conte to crack the starting lineup this season, which is disappointing because he’s the type of player that cares deeply about his craft and how he’s perceived by fans, the media, and most importantly, coaches and teammates.

Besides that, nobody wants to be a liability; especially Conte.

Making the situation more difficult for the Bears is the current roster. The Bears signed four safeties since free agency started in Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, and Danny McCray in addition to re-signing veteran Craig Steltz. Mundy and Jennings have extensive experience as starters. But in five years with 14 career starts, including nine in 2013 with the New York Giants, Mundy has intercepted just two passes. Jennings, meanwhile, started the past 26 games for the Green Bay Packers over the past two seasons. Yet in three NFL seasons, Jennings has picked off only one pass.

Remember, in what was a bad 2013 season for Conte, he picked off as many passes as Mundy and Jennings combined over their careers. Conte finished last season with seven pass breakups. Combined, Jennings and Mundy have broken up 13 passes.

So it's almost a lock the Bears will draft a safety in May.

As we’ve said before, Conte appeared to be an ascending player headed into last season, and what transpired with him was somewhat puzzling because the expectation was he’d take the next step, which might have put him into the conversation about some of the better players in the league at his position.

“Chris knows he has to come in and compete to start,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said at the combine. “My vision for him is that he does compete and win it. I’d love to be talking to him about an extension. So let’s see what he does.”

The first step now for Conte, however, is rehabilitation.