Chris Harris’ roller-coaster ride with the Bears is over.
The seven-year veteran, who was a second-team All-Pro pick last season, when he started all 16 games and tied for the team lead with 5 interceptions, was released Thursday morning.
Bears coach Lovie Smith told Harris the team was going in the direction of younger players at safety. Rookie free safety Chris Conte started his second straight game last Sunday and had his first interception. Second-year man Major Wright missed that game with a hip injury but has started four games this season. Conte and Wright are both third-round draft picks.
Despite starting just four games, Wright is sixth on the Bears with 31 tackles. Both he and Conte are considered better athletes with more speed than the 29-year-old Harris, a physical run defender and a big hitter.
Harris was in the opening day lineup at strong safety but missed the next three games with a hamstring injury. He returned in Week Five against the Detroit Lions but was responsible for a 73-yard TD pass to Calvin Johnson in the Bears’ 24-13 loss.
Harris was made inactive the following week and asked to be traded, but the Bears were unable to move him. He started Sunday in London against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because Wright was sidelined with the hip injury, but coaches apparently saw no improvement in his play.
On the flip side, Conte and Wright have shown coaches they deserve more playing time and that they can make the Bears’ defense better in the long run as well as right now.
“We feel like their play at the safety position, in all the things we ask the safety to do, we feel like they can (do it),” Smith said. “Chris Conte, we moved him into the starting lineup a couple weeks ago, (and we’ve) been very pleased with what we’ve gotten from him as a tackler, a guy in the middle of the field with a lot of range.
“We drafted him to someday be our safety. That time is now.”
Wright is expected be 100 percent healthy next week, and the feeling among coaches is that only nagging injuries in his first two seasons have kept him from becoming a full-time starter. But there have been inconsistencies in his play, specifically in his tackling during the preseason.
“Major is a good tackler,” Smith said. “He’s a good player. These aren’t veteran players, but they’ll get better each rep. We feel like we can play winning football with them.”
Behind the 22-year-old Conte and the 23-year-old Wright, the Bears have Brandon Meriweather, who was added on Sept. 4, after the Patriots cut him, and Craig Steltz, whose primary contributions have come on special teams. Anthony Walters was promoted from the practice squad Oct. 11.
Meriweather started four straight games at strong safety, from Week Two through Week Five, but he was guilty of some of the same mistakes that made Harris expendable.
“We still have five safeties,” Smith said. “No team has six safeties on their roster. This is the right thing to do, and we’ll see how it turns out.”
Harris was originally a sixth-round pick of the Bears in 2005 out of Louisiana-Monroe. During the 2007 training camp, he was traded to Carolina for a fifth-round draft choice, then traded back to the Bears before the 2010 season for linebacker Jamar Williams.
“This caught me as a surprise and it didn’t catch me as a surprise,” Harris said Thursday morning on “The Waddle & Silvy Show” on ESPN 1000. “It caught me as a surprise coming off a start and then going into the office on Thursday and being told I’m being released.
“Then again, it doesn’t catch me as a surprise because in the seven years I’ve been in the league I’ve experienced the highs and lows. I’ve been traded and things of that nature. I’ve been benched. I’ve come to realize that in this business nothing is for certain.”
Nothing is less certain than the starters at the safety positions for the Bears.
If Wright starts vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, it will be the 52nd change at the starting safety positions since Smith became head coach in 2004. Already this season the Bears have started six different safety combinations.
The Bears claimed rookie linebacker Jabara Williams off waivers to fill Harris’ roster spot. The Rams’ seventh-round draft choice out of Stephen F. Austin, played in two games this season. He was the 2010 Southland Conference defensive player of the year.
ź Follow Bob’s Bears reports via Twitter @BobLeGere and check out our Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.