Countdown to Camp: New faces, places to help stabilize secondary

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This is Part 8 of the 10-part position analysis leading up to the start of the Bears’ 2010 training camp in Bourbonnais.

Bears fans have to feel good that arguably the weakest group on the team was heavily addressed in the off-season. Generically speaking, the secondary was a major problem last season. Specifically, it was the safety position that failed to produce and has been unsatisfactory for quite some time.

Not since early in Mike Brown’s career have the Bears had a player capable of getting his teammates in the right positions and making plays on a regular basis. That could change for this year and beyond after the team made two additions — one through trade and one through the draft — that should bring some stability to the defensive backfield.

The Bears brought back a familiar face when they acquired Chris Harris from the Panthers and shipped away linebacker Jamar Williams. The Bears surely had buyer’s remorse when they traded Harris before the 2007 season and Harris led the league with 8 forced fumbles that year, and Adam Archuleta, the player whom the Bears entrusted to start in Harris’ place, was a colossal disappointment. Harris is by far not the perfect player but he’s familiar with the defensive scheme, he’s a veteran leader at this point of his career, and his ability to punch the ball loose will help force more turnovers, a key to Lovie Smith’s defense.

The Bears also feel they got a playmaking safety via the draft in Florida’s Major Wright. Wright has good speed and range and is also a forceful hitter. The plan is for Harris and Wright to roam the field together, but it also remains to be seen how quickly Wright can pick up the defense and whether the two can be a cohesive force on the field.

A third factor weighing on the coaching staff is whether Danieal Manning can adapt to playing strong safety, his fourth position on the team in five years. Manning has jumped from free safety to cornerback to nickelback and now to the strong safety position. Throughout the off-season, the Bears slotted Harris at free and Manning at strong, a curious move considering each player is a better fit at the opposite position. It could be that the Bears just wanted to give Manning one more crack at a position before relegating him to nickelback for the duration of his career.

Other safeties vying for a roster spot include Josh Bullocks, Craig Steltz, and Al Afalava. Afalava’s rapid decline into near obscurity is a curious one. He was a surprising playmaker as a 2009 6th round pick and turned some heads in training camp and the preseason. He hit a rookie wall early in the regular season and was never quite the same. The Bears figure to carry just five safeties, so one of these three might not make it to the regular season.

At cornerback, the biggest move of the off-season was not an addition or subtraction, but rather the side switch of Zack Bowman and Charles Tillman. Bowman led the team with 6 interceptions last year and has been a playmaker since his days in college. Staying healthy has always been his problem but if he can stay on the field, the Bears feel his athleticism will allow him to make more plays on the left side of the field, where teams generally line up their best receivers. Tillman, too, appears to benefit from playing on a different side after all the injuries he’s piled up over the years. He appears to be heading toward the downside of his career and could use a break against some lesser receivers.

The Bears brought in diminutive Tim Jennings from the Colts, although he probably wouldn’t be anything more than a stopgap solution should one of the starters suffer an injury. The Colts would have re-signed him had he’d been starter-quality because good cornerbacks are hard to come by.

Last year’s fourth-round pick, D.J. Moore — also of small stature — and this year’s fifth-round pick, Josh Moore, will be competing for a roster spot with Jennings. Josh Moore figures to have the upper hand because he’s bigger and has a nose for the football and it’s unlikely the Bears would cut him so soon unless he turned out to be a major disappointment. Add Woodny Turenne to the mix vying for a spot on the team. He played well in the preseason last year but was cut after getting lost in a numbers game. The same situation could happen this year.

The one player not yet mentioned that could be the wild card at the position is Corey Graham. Graham is a physical player who is good in run support and may find his way into the starting nickelback role. He’s got good size and a familiarity with the system heading into his fourth year in the league. If he does spend his time playing nickelback, that seemingly would take him out of the running to be the first backup at cornerback should one of the starters get hurt because the Bears wouldn’t want to weaken two positions by moving Graham from nickel to corner. Then again, Manning has excelled at nickelback in the past, so the Bears do have other options should they need them.

There is some concern that the Bears are a little thin at cornerback and that they might struggle if a starter goes down. Both Tillman and Bowman have had their share of injuries and it has to make the coaching staff a little nervous. But the amount of depth they have at both cornerback and safety has to give the Bears confidence heading into a crucial season.

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