The Sports Xchange

NFL Team Report - Chicago Bears - INSIDE SLANT

After finishing 30th in defense among the NFL's 32 teams, it is no secret that the Chicago Bears will be focused on that side of the ball when they line up for their first training camp practice July 25 at Olivet Nazerene University in Bourbonnais, Ill.

The Bears were 32nd -- dead last -- in sacks, a situation they hope to improve with the addition of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young.

While the Bears hope those proven veterans take care of business up front, the focus of a lot of attention will be at safety, where they find the key position battle, the main concern seems to be focused at safety, the team's weakest position with the most important job battle and the player with the most to prove. Here is a closer look at that and the team's most likely long shot to make the club:

WEAKEST POSITION

--Safety: The Bears are hurting at both safety spots. Former Giant Ryan Mundy has been steady enough that coaches are keeping him on the field the longest. In OTAs, the team played a regular rotation of safeties with the first team gave rookie Brock Vereen a chance with the first unit. The fourth-round pick from Minnesota was lining up at free safety, while Mundy was at strong safety.

With Chris Conte (shoulder) and Craig Steltz (torn pectoral tendon) still recovering after surgeries and unable to practice, Mundy, Vereen and M.D. Jennings got the first-team reps.

KEY POSITION BATTLE

Safety: This is a wide-open contest. With two new safeties and a different nickel corner, the secondary will take on the look of a project throughout the offseason.

During the first week of OTAs, two incumbents watched while the newcomers made inroads. Backup Craig Steltz had pectoral surgery after a season when he played 123 snaps and was not working out, while starting free safety Chris Conte had right shoulder surgery and isn't ready to practice yet. The Bears looked at free-agent pickups Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings at the starting safety spots.

"We approach it the same as it's going to be our starting safeties," cornerback Tim Jennings said about working with safeties unfamiliar with the defense.

PLAYER WITH MOST TO PROVE

--Chris Conte, FS: The Bears' playoff chances ended when Conte blew the coverage on Green Bay's Randall Cobb and he got into the open for a game-winning touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers in the closing seconds of the regular-season finale. That one play aside, Conte's play suffered much of last season after he had shown some improvement from his first year to his second. Only six teams gave up more passing plays of 20 yards or more than the Bears last year.

Conte wasn't much better as an open-field tackler. The former California cornerback is in the final year of his contract, which adds to the pressure and, worse, he has been unable to practice in OTAs due to offseason shoulder surgery. Meantime, former Packer M.D. Jennings has been making inroads by taking his place at starting free safety. The Bears also drafted Minnesota safety Brock Vereen, moving up in the selection process to get him.

BEST LONGSHOT ROOKIE

--Pat O'Donnell, P, Miami, Round 6/191st overall: The Bears did not waste a sixth-round pick on a punter if they weren't sure he could make it. The Bears were impressed by everything about him, starting with his size, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and, of course his leg. He averaged 47 yards a punt last year, four yards better than 2012.

Punting at Soldier Field never lends itself to big averages, but his size and strength should help cut through the cold November winds off Lake Michigan. NFLDraftScout.com projected O'Donnell in the area of a seventh-rounder or priority free agent, 260th overall.

--Both physically and mentally, quarterback Jay Cutler couldn't feel better about the approaching Chicago Bears season.