Trumaine McBride and Zackary Bowman will see plenty of playing time this season.
Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer, 2008
Cornerback Charles Tillman's temporary unavailability because of recent back surgery leaves the Bears with a secondary that will be under the microscope, starting today when players report to Olivet Nazarene University for the eighth straight training camp in Bourbonnais.
Tillman expects to be on the field for the start of the regular season after undergoing a microdiscectomy in mid-July to remove a disc fragment in his lower back. But in the meantime, a handful of young players will get a thorough evaluation as coaches allocate practice reps and formulate a depth chart.
Zack Bowman, a fifth-round pick from Nebraska in 2008, will line up as Tillman's replacement in the first practice, Friday at 3 p.m. Bowman was one of the most impressive players during spring practices, leading the team with 7 interceptions in OTAs. In his only game last season, the 6-foot-1, 193-pound Bowman recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and, after suffering a torn biceps, intercepted a pass to preserve a 48-41 victory over the Vikings. He spent the remainder of the season on injured reserve.
Corey Graham, a fifth-round pick in 2007, started nine games at cornerback last season when Nate Vasher was hurt. The Bears had switched the 6-foot, 193-pound Graham to free safety in the off-season, but he is likely to move back to corner in Tillman's absence. Vasher is healthy again and back in the starting lineup, but he is coming off two injury-marred and unproductive seasons and could be challenged.
Despite his lack of size, 5-foot-9, 185-pound Trumaine McBride has played in all 32 games since he was drafted in the seventh round in 2007. He's started 10 games at cornerback, including nine as a rookie, when injuries depleted the Bears' secondary. Fourth-round pick D.J. Moore will also get plenty of practice reps and preseason snaps with Tillman out, and he could also see some time at nickel back.
The free safety position was a question mark through much of the off-season. But the Bears have decided to give that spot back to Danieal Manning, who started 29 games in his first two seasons, including 27 at free safety, before he was demoted to nickel back last season.
"He knows exactly what it feels like to play (cornerback, safety and nickel)," Bears coach Lovie Smith said on the team's Web site. "He's played every position in the secondary. That's helped his football knowledge and is going to make him a better free safety."
In passing situations, Manning will move back to the nickel spot, and Craig Steltz will take over at free safety. Steltz will also get reps at strong safety, while veteran Josh Bullocks is a contender for playing time at both safety spots.
Kevin Payne is the starter at strong safety after leading the team with 4 interceptions last season and finishing second in tackles.
The position battle with the most talent is at strong-side linebacker.
Brian Urlacher in the middle and Lance Briggs on the weak side are entrenched. But that leaves several contenders with starting experience battling for the spot on the strong side.
Pisa Tinoisamoa, who was signed after being cut by the Rams, is the leading contender, considering he has been a productive starter in all six of his NFL seasons. But he'll have plenty of competition.
Hunter Hillenmeyer started for four straight seasons along with Urlacher and Briggs before losing the job to Nick Roach last season. Roach started the final nine games of the 2008 season and displayed the speed and athleticism that the Bears value.
Yet another contender is fourth-year player Jamar Williams, who was considered a starter in waiting the past two seasons until he was passed by Roach on the depth chart.
But the 25-year-old Williams had one of the best off-seasons on the team according to coaches, and he wants to do more than excel on special teams, which he has done the past two seasons.
On offense, unrestricted free agent pickup Frank Omiyale is considered the favorite to win the left guard spot. But Josh Beekman started all 16 games there last season, and he won't give up his spot without a fight.