In rebuilding the Bears defense, the new coaching staff is keeping with the time-honored tradition of rotating through young safeties.
Rookie Adrian Amos will start at free safety Saturday night against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, and a positive showing will almost ensure he remains there the following week against the Bengals for the third exhibition game, when coaches like to have their season-opening lineup in place.
Amos, a fifth-round pick from Penn State, replaces Brock Vereen, who struggled running with the first string last week in the exhibition opener against the Dolphins. Vereen, a fourth-round pick last year, was late reacting to cover Jarvis Landry on Miami's touchdown a few plays after Landry had stiff-armed him to the turf.
The decision to replace Vereen with Amos is a sign the team is in search of an option with more speed and range than 30-year-old Ryan Mundy, who started 16 games for the porous defense last year. Amos has decent size at 6-foot, 218 pounds and was timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his pro day.
But the Nittany Lions used him primarily as a cornerback. He didn't play safety until his senior year and that was only on first down before he moved to nickel and dime and other roles. So the learning curve is steep.
"Well enough to get bumped up," coach John Fox said after Wednesday's practice when asked how Amos has performed. "We're just practicing. We evaluate every snap of practice and he's graded and evaluated. We put a little more stock in games and we're excited to see him play and I'm sure he's excited to play."
Facing quarterback Andrew Luck and wide receivers including T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson and Phillip Dorsett, the Bears have to be careful that the Colts don't take the top off the defense. Amos needs to find the balance between playing aggressively and fast without being caught moving in while the play goes over his head.
"I know the game," Amos said. "But I have learned more about the safety position this year than I have ever known in a short period of time."
The Bears started rookie safeties on almost an annual basis under former coach Lovie Smith, whose Buccaneers put Amos through a predraft workout as a safety. Some teams evaluated him as a cornerback. The Bears have selected a safety in 10 of the last 11 drafts and of the nine that came before Amos, six started as a rookie. Chris Harris (2005), Danieal Manning (2006), Kevin Payne (2007), Al Afalava (2009), Chris Conte (2011) and Vereen (2014) combined for 55 rookie starts.
It's a vicious cycle that highlights the lack of stability in the secondary. Keep in mind that strong safety Antrel Rolle turns 33 in December and while the Bears signed him to a three-year contract, they're probably going to be fortunate if they get two seasons out of him.
What concerns does Fox have considering rookies for the starting lineup?
It's one thing to start the second overall pick, the slot where Peppers (2002) and Miller (2011) were drafted. Amos came as the 142nd pick, which the Bears acquired from the Jets in the Brandon Marshall dump.
"But football's football," Fox said. "We had a guy, Chris Harris, who was a Pro Bowler (for the Broncos) and he was a college free agent. You don't know with these guys, from all different places, whether drafted or free agents. You just watch them compete and see how they execute. He's caught our eye for sure and we'll see how he does."
Amos' athletic ability makes him intriguing. Rolle is a wonderful mentor for him, but getting a pointer while watching film in a meeting room is one thing. When Amos sees the play unfold in front of him, he must be able to react decisively and be physical. That's something Vereen didn't always do. Recall the goal-line play against the Lions' Calvin Johnson at Ford Field last Thanksgiving, when Vereen stuck his arms up in the air instead of trying to dislodge the ball.
Fox and his staff aren't dwelling on what happened last year, but they also won't hesitate to keep the revolving door spinning if Amos winds up being the flavor of the week. Right now, he has a well-timed opportunity to grab a starting job and run with it.