LAKE FOREST – Other than Jay Cutler at quarterback, Martellus Bennett at tight end, and Matt Forte and Michael Bush at running back, the only unit on the Bears where the starting lineup is set in stone is the secondary.
Competition for starting spots rages on the offensive and defensive lines and at linebacker, but Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Major Wright and Chris Conte have been penciled in as the starting cornerbacks and safeties since the curtain came down on the 2012 season in Detroit last year.
“You always look for cohesiveness in your units and we’ve had that in the secondary, so they’re coming along nicely, we like the way they work hard to get better every day,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said.
What a difference a year can make?
Heading into Bourbonnais last season, neither Conte nor Wright were guaranteed starting spots and Jennings had been benched late in the 2011 season and told if he didn’t improve his ball skills in the offseason he could be gone. All Jennings did was lead the league in interceptions and go to his first Pro Bowl in 2012, while Tillman earned his second straight Pro Bowl trip and a few Defensive MVP votes.
For Conte and Wright, things came a bit slower, but the continuity has helped.
“We’ve known each other almost three years now, so it’s definitely an advantage being able to spend the offseason and preseason together knowing that we’re going to be the guys back there,” Conte said. “Now we’ve just got to keep everybody healthy.”
And therein lies the rub. As settled as the Bears are on their starting four, depth is a concern. Isaiah Frey seems to have a grip on the starting nickel job leaving spots for at least two more cornerbacks and two more safeties.
Zack Bowman would appear to be the Bears’ No. 3 cornerback, and I asked him, having already made the team and been cut and re-signed once, if that experience has helped him at all in this roster battle.
“It’s part of the business,” Bowman said. “There are some guys who know how to handle it and some guys don’t. Fortunately for me, I had an opportunity to come back here, and my mindset is to make the best of the opportunity.”
Craig Steltz also appears to be in the driver’s seat for a No. 3 safety job, but the six-year veteran said he never takes anything for granted. “Every year, you’re just out competing. You know you can’t pay any attention to the numbers or anything. You just go out and compete every day.”
A big advantage for Steltz and Bowman in their roster fights is that both are excellent special teams players. I asked Bowman if they’ve been told special teams will play a part in the final roster decisions and he told me.
“Everybody on our team is focused on special teams,” Bowman said. “That is a big part of our team. That’s my mindset. Every day I go to special teams meetings, every day all the defensive backs go to special teams meetings.”
None of this is to say there aren’t still concerns in the secondary. Both Conte and Wright have more to prove in pass coverage and the pass rush will play a big part in the play of the safeties and Jennings as well. As big a year as the undersized corner had in 2012, there are concerns that at 5-foot-8 he still will face matchup problems with all the new supersized receivers.
There is no question, though, that the secondary was the most productive unit on either side of the ball throughout their time in Bourbonnais. And with three interceptions and two fumbles recovered in the first two preseason games, it appears this group is game-ready for Week 1.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.