Bears training camp primer: Safeties

Does 32-year-old Antrel Rolle still have what it takes?

One of the Bears' thinnest positions — safety — at least features two locker room leaders, while second-year pro Brock Vereen pushes the veterans for playing time.

Currently on roster: 7.

Projected on final roster: 4-5.

Roster locks: Antrel Rolle, Ryan Mundy, Brock Vereen.

Good bet: Adrian Amos.

On the bubble: Sherrod Martin.

Practice squad candidates: Malcolm Bronson, Anthony Jefferson.

Biggest offseason developments: The Bears signed 11th-year veteran Antrel Rolle to a three-year, $11.25 million contract that includes $4.9 million guaranteed. They allowed incumbent starting free safety Chris Conte to leave via free agency. They drafted Penn State free safety Adrian Amos in the fifth round.

What to like: General manager Ryan Pace and new coach John Fox targeted Rolle in free agency. Rolle played in every game over the last five seasons with the Giants, establishing himself as a high-character, vocal locker room presence who became a team captain. That's a necessary for the Bears' locker room, as the defense transitions away from past stalwarts Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs.

As Fox explained in March, he sees leadership on a football team in a 10-80-10 percentage split. Ten percent are professionals all the time, 80 percent are in the middle ground and 10 percent really need guidance.

"We think he is in that (top) 10," Fox said of Rolle.

At 32, Rolle still fancies himself a play-maker. He had three interceptions and a forced fumble last season and six picks and two sacks in 2013. He was on the Giants' Super Bowl championship team in 2011 and the Cardinals' runner-up team in 2008.

Incumbent starting strong safety Ryan Mundy started nine games next to Rolle with the Giants in 2013.

"Our communication is pretty much the same," Rolle said. "We understand each other's eyes. We understand our weak points, our strong points, and so far it has been great."

Brock Vereen, a fourth-round pick in 2014, will push Mundy for playing time. Fox studied Vereen coming out of Minnesota and liked his speed and range in coverage.

Amos garnered the Bears' attention this spring with his instincts and coverage ability. He's a former cornerback.

Preseason questions: Competition between Vereen and Mundy materialized during minicamp. But the big difference between practicing in shorts and playing in full pads gets to the essence of this position battle: tackling.

Mundy led the Bears last season with 85 solo tackles (23 more than linebacker Jonathan Bostic's second-place total).

In contrast, physicality became a focus for Vereen late in his rookie season after he didn't finish a hit on Lions receiver Calvin Johnson on a 25-yard touchdown catch in the Thanksgiving Day loss.

Vereen's passive play caught the coaching staff's attention. But with a new staff in place now, he has a fresh chance to make a better impression.

In terms of range and coverage, Vereen got off to a positive start in the spring.

"He has good top-end speed, as well as good agile, short quickness," Fox said. "And now it's just a matter of bottling and learning and having good eyes at the position."

Mundy had four interceptions last season, so he won't be pushed aside easily. The Bears would like their safeties to be interchangeable, so the fact Mundy's skill set is more similar to Rolle's than Vereen's is shouldn't matter much. Performance in exhibitions — when the tackling is live — should determine playing time.

Amos must prove he can tackle in exhibitions. That's the biggest question following him from college, where he split time at cornerback until last season.

The Bears signed Sherrod Martin, a second-round pick of Fox's Panthers in 2009, after a minicamp tryout. That reflects how thin they are at the position. Keep that in mind when looking for long shots who could make the 53-man roster.

Free agent rookie Anthony Jefferson, for example, was known for his sure tackling at UCLA. He must prove that at the NFL level and improve his instincts in coverage.

rcampbell@tribpub.com

Twitter @Rich_Campbell

Copyright © 2018, CT Now
40°