Free agency kicks off soon, so let’s count down the top 10 Chicago Bears’ players set on March 10 to hit the open market:
Chris Conte, safety
2014 pay: $1.431 million ($1.421 base salary, $10,000 workout bonus).
By the numbers: Played in 44.4 percent of the team’s snaps in 2014 over 12 games, with 11 starts, and contributed three interceptions to go with 38 tackles. Was inactive for a total of four games, missing time due to back and eye injuries, in addition to spraining both shoulders. Conte was also diagnosed with at least two concussions on the season.
The case for keeping him: Upset Bears fans don’t want to read this, but Conte is one of the most athletic players on Chicago’s defense, and although he’s not a strong run supporter, he can be a major asset in coverage. Conte has picked off three passes in each of the past two seasons, and has the coverage ability -- in part because of his college experience as a cornerback -- to handle man-to-man responsibilities against slot receivers. Prior to the 2013 season, Conte, 26, appeared to be on the verge of ascending to one of the league’s best at the position. Perhaps a new coaching staff can rejuvenate what once appeared to be a promising career.
The case for letting him walk: Since Conte’s dismal 2013 season, multiple coaches believe the safety has lost his confidence. Besides that, Conte’s recent injury history gives cause for concern. Conte missed the entire 2014 offseason program after undergoing shoulder surgery, and he couldn’t continue games in Weeks 2 and 3 because of shoulder-related issues. Conte was also diagnosed with at least two concussions during the season. Chicago has plenty of cap space to bring back Conte if it so chooses, and the safety’s overall skill set would seem to make him a viable candidate to return. But Conte’s style of play probably isn’t aggressive as new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would like.
Prediction: Conte only returns in 2015 if the Bears present his only offer in free agency. Otherwise, Conte is likely to bolt because for him it’s time for a change of scenery. Conte is a more talented player than given credit for, and it’s likely Fangio could coax that out of him on a consistent basis. But given all Conte has gone through during his Bears tenure, it’s likely his preference is to start fresh somewhere else.