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Bears' upgrade at safety may have to wait
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff

Danieal Manning will play at either safety spot next season, coach Lovie Smith says.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/18/2010 8:37 PM

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The Bears have endured 40 lineup changes at the safety positions since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004, and they're anxious to achieve some continuity there.

But that won't happen for a while.

Several players are currently in the mix for the two starting jobs, but the draft and free agency may change the pecking order. Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo have mentioned throughout the off-season that an upgrade is necessary at safety. Most recently, Angelo said the team might be content to stand pat, but at this time of year NFL teams are notorious for putting up smokescreens regarding their draft plans.

"Right now, we would be comfortable starting with the present cast of players at the position," Angelo said recently on the Bears' web site. "Certainly it's a much-talked-about position. I'm talking about the safeties and the corners, and we're going to look hard at that."

So far, the only change in the secondary has been a minor tweaking, the addition of free-agent cornerback Tim Jennings, an undersized player with good speed and quickness who has started for the Colts in the past but who figures to compete for the Bears' nickel back spot.

Al Afalava started 13 games last season as a rookie, 10 at strong safety and three at free, but he'll have to win the job again this year. He's a physical player but somewhat lacking in coverage.

Danieal Manning started 10 games at free safety and has 38 starts since moving into the lineup as a rookie in 2006. But Manning was demoted to nickel back last year, and his status for 2010 is uncertain. He could win up at free or strong, but Smith has said Manning won't be at nickel, and he'll have to earn a starting job with more consistent play.

"He'll be a safety," Smith said. "We want to get him in one position and keep him there. He's not going to be flipping back and forth. Strong safety is an option; free safety is still an option."

Manning, a restricted free agent, was unhappy with his $1.176 million contract tender and stayed away from voluntary off-season workouts. He is arguably the best athlete on the team, but his production on the field has rarely matched his physical gifts. He has just 6 career interceptions and, while his toughness isn't questioned, he has not always been a reliable tackler.

Kevin Payne started all 16 games and picked off 4 passes in 2008, his second season in the league. But he seemed to fall out of favor last season, although he did start four games at strong safety, his best position, and one game at free.

Craig Steltz and Josh Bullocks both got late looks last season with one start at each safety spot, and they should be somewhere in the equation this year.

The talent pool at cornerback is a bit shallow behind starters Charles Tillman and Zackary Bowman, both of whom have enough size to match up with bigger wide receivers and enough toughness to support vs. the run.

In addition to Jennings, Corey Graham has some starting experience and has played some nickel, but for now he's best in a backup role or as an additional DB in passing situations.

Undersized D.J. Moore, last year's fourth-round pick, was inactive for 13 games and didn't do much to inspire optimism for the future. Undrafted Woodny Turenne might be a better prospect.