BY Doug Farrar 07:30AM 04/14/2011

Cal’s Chris Conte may be an answer at safety

Could a versatile Pac-10 defender be on Seattle’s radar?

Chris Conte of California tackles T.J. Simpson of ASU during the game at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, CA. on Oct. 23rd, 2010. / Courtesy Goldenbearsports.com

The 2010 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West in part due the efforts of safeties Earl Thomas and Lawyer Milloy. Thomas was the rookie center fielder, the 14th overall draft pick from Texas who provided cornerback-style range and actually disappointed fans by “dropping” potential interceptions that most safeties could not possibly get to. Like the best shortstops who get debited by official scorers due to their amazing range, Thomas’ efforts were actually pretty transcendent to those who superimposed his coverage skills over those of the NFL average free safety.

Meanwhile, 15-year veteran Milloy, free from the constraints of the Jim Mora system that had him riding the bench for the most part, took the price and frustration emanating from a lost 2009 season and turned himself into the team’s on-field leader. Milloy was more than just a good box safety who could still move around in certain packages – he was the guy all the young players could come to and talk to. Thomas and many other young defenders could not say enough about the effects of Milloy’s influence.

But whether the Seahawks bring Milloy, who is currently a free agent, back – and what his role might be – are questions whose answers are blocked by the current lockout. Eventually, Seattle will need more coverage speed in their secondary, whether it’s to bring in another range safety in more interchangeable coverage concepts, or in the person of a nickel back who can take slot receivers of any stripe and leave the more complex assignments for a cornerback rotation that needs its own rebuild in the near future.

Among the more versatile draft-eligible defensive backs in 2011 is Cal’s Chris Conte, with whom the Seahawks recently had a private workout. The 6-foot-2, 197-pound Conte was a reserve cornerback for the Golden Bears from the 2007 through 2009 seasons before moving to free safety in 2010 and being awarded First Team All Pac-10 status at his new position. In 2010, Conte put up 72 tackles (46 solo), deflected three passes, intercepted one, and forced a fumble. For the Seahawks and other teams, Conte’s versatility is a primary selling point. He played 49 total games for Cal, and showed up just about everywhere in the defensive backfield.

California defenders' Marc Anthony (2) and Chris Conte (17) knock the ball away from Jordan Bishop of Oregon State at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, OR., on October 30th, 2010. / Courtesy Goldenbearsports.com

“It’s hard being in the season, when you’re moving around from position to position, but I think in the long run, to have the experience at all those positions is great,” Conte said at the 2011 scouting combine about the change under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. “When you’re in the season and trying to learn four different positions it can be a little bit difficult.”

On the field, Conte’s athleticism shows up quickly and consistently – he can trail receivers pretty well for a safety, and he closes in on downhill plays with authority. He’s aggressive when getting to the ballcarrier, and he takes good angles to facilitate the takedown. On the downside, there are questions about his agility, instincts at safety, and overall size – he’ll most likely need to put on some muscle to hold up at the NFL level.

“Learning the whole secondary, there’s not that much after that you have to learn. You have to start learning what the linebackers are supposed to do, you start to put all the pieces together, it makes it a lot easier to know the whole defense and where everyone else is supposed to be, and you can give guidance also to younger guys who are learning the positions too because I’ve played pretty much everything.”

And in the end, that may be Conte’s main asset for the Seahawks were they to draft him – with a defense that’s getting younger by necessity, it’s more important than ever to bring in players with physical talent mixed with on-field acumen.

Conte is currently graded by NFLDraftScout.com’s rankings as a third- to fourth-round prospect.


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