Breakout seasons on tap for Conte and Wright

Young Bears safeties showed progress last season and more should be expected this year

BOURBONNAIS

— In the NFL, your secondary should dictate the flow of the game.

Whether that is the ability to take away the deep ball, win on third down or show up in the run front, the secondary can be the difference between a team competing in the postseason or sitting at home in January.

And the Bears have a good one that features four returning starters — including two cornerbacks who made the trip to Hawaii last season for the Pro Bowl.

But what about those young safeties?

Major Wright and Chris Conte combined for six interceptions in 2012 and both progressed from my perspective.

However, as they prep for the upcoming season, can they develop into consistent playmakers and solidify the safety position for years to come?

"I expect to have a big year," Conte said. "And I need to have a big year."

The defense — in terms of scheme and style — won't change much. That was evident in my visits to Halas Hall this offseason and in watching practice at training camp at Olivet Nazarene University.

Sure, the defense will adjust some under new coordinator Mel Tucker. But at its core, this system is still the "Bears defense," as Wright told me after practice Thursday.

That means the two-deep looks (Cover-2), eight-man fronts (Cover-1, Cover-3, Under-10), plus the mix of zone and man pressure we have seen in the past.

Maybe the Bears will lean on man-coverage more this season under Tucker. That's a possibility with cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. But looking at the scheme, the skill sets of Wright and Conte fit what the Bears are trying to accomplish in their defensive game plan.

Conte's range and footwork in the deep half or in a single-high alignment in the middle of the field is a plus. He has coverage skills and a burst out of his breaks. But, to be honest, there is plenty of potential to his game that still needs to develop.

According to NFL scouts, Conte has the attributes teams look for in a young safety.

"Conte is ready to take the next step," a scout told me. "He has everything you want — speed, ball skills and tackles in space. He should have a good year."

Wright can play in the box and blitz on the edge and showed much more awareness off the numbers in Cover-2. The consistency? No question there is room for improvement, but he played better in 2012 than in previous years.

Wright credited that to his preparation and maturity as a pro. That means a dedication to film work and having a better feel for what you will see on Sundays to put you in a position to produce.

But scouts agree: Bears safeties need to make more plays on the ball. That's a must. Finish plays, eliminate the errors and show general manager Phil Emery they are the long-term answer at the position.

"The important thing is these guys are just starting to hit their prime," one scout said. "If they can stay healthy and continue to play together, that bodes well for the future."

During practices, it's easy to see the comfort level at which these two play. That's noticeable in their ability to adjust and recognize route schemes based on the offense's pre-snap alignment. There is very little wasted movement in their footwork, and they look like a veteran combo.

But training camp — along with exhibitions — is about repetition and technique for vets. What Emery needs to see is that transfer to the regular season. Make no mistake: There will be plays to be made and situations in which they can affect the outcome of games.

Wright and Conte have a great opportunity in a league that has become all about spread sets and the passing game. Wright is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and Conte can establish himself in the eyes of Emery and league talent evaluators.

Are Wright and Conte the future in Chicago? That's up to them.

Twitter @MattBowen41

Special contributor Matt Bowen, who played at Glenbard West and Iowa, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a strong safety.

CHICAGO