There is a newcomer to the mix at free safety and it would not be a surprise if he quickly becomes a favorite to lock down the job.
As Lovie Smith suggested at the end of the rookie minicamp earlier this month, Corey Graham will get a look at the position.
He has been lining up at free safety at the start of today's first OTA at Halas Hall. The move signals another significant development. It means the Bears have confidence that former Pro Bowl right cornerback Nathan Vasher will rebound to form or rookie fourth-round pick D.J. Moore will quickly be ready for the job.
Graham made nine starts at right cornerback last season after injuries derailed Vasher for a second consecutive season. Graham finished fifth on the team in tackles with 93, two ahead of left cornerback Charles Tillman, and had one interception and six pass deflections. The position has been under scrutiny all offseason as the Bears look to move forward from the Mike Brown era. The Bears drafted Oregon State's Al Afalava in the sixth round but most project him as a strong safety and that is where the Bears will start him. Asked specifically about free safety at the conclusion of the rookie minicamp, Smith rattled off the names of every safety on the roster. Then he said, "Look at other players. We have Corey Graham.''
"We have a lot of different options,'' Smith added. ``You can print [Tillman] is ruled out. But the rest of it, you know, it will work itself out. We're trying to get as many athletes as we can and give ourselves as many options as possible. We're going to be fine.''
Graham to safety is something the Bears experimented with briefly at the end of his rookie season in 2007 when injuries had wiped out the depth chart. He's been solid in run support as a cornerback and that is certainly a big responsibility at safety. What the Bears have really lacked for some time is a player with range and Graham would provide that. Also in the mix will be free-agent pickup Josh Bullocks. Even if Afalava is an option, his transition will have to wait for training camp. He will miss the bulk of OTA's because he is not allowed to show up until after Oregon State's graduation--June 13. The Bears will have four OTA dates between then and the conclusion of the voluntary offseason workout program June 18.
What cannot be understated is the possible re-emergence of Vasher. He's pocketed more than $15 million since signing his contract extension nearly two years ago and has appeared in only 12 games he last two seasons combined. Vasher had a groin muscle tear in 2007 and then missed portions of last season with a hand injury. He struggled at times before the injury.
"I feel he will come back strong," general manager Jerry Angelo said earlier this month. "I felt like last year he was ready. During this time last year, during training camp, I thought he did really well. He got off to a poor start of the season in terms of making plays. I don't know what that did to his psyche one way or the other. We just didn't see the same swagger, the same ballhawk that we know and came to love when you talk about Nate.
"Do I feel that he has that? Yes. I don't see any diminishing of his skills and I feel this guy is a great competitor and his back is to the wall. I expect him to come out and give us really good football and we're going to see the guy we paid. I have a lot of confidence in Nate. Saying all that, he's got to go out and do it. He's got to do that and he knows that."
Pushing Vasher will certainly be Moore, who showed no lack of confidence at rookie minicamp. He's undersized at 5-9, an inch shorter than the club lists Vasher, but he has long arms and as the scouts say, he plays taller than he is. Angelo said Moore has the best ball skills he's seen in a college cornerback since Vasher.
*** As expected, free-agent linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa is observing practice and is talking with coach Lovie Smith on the field. He'll likely meet with the coaching staff and club officials after practice is over. It's not known if the Bears plan to give him a physical but if they are going to talk contract with him, you can bet that is in order.
*** Tommie Harris, Marcus Harrison, Desmond Clark, Joey LaRocque and Hunter Hillenmeyer are all sidelined.
*** We'll check back with more OTA news and observations after practice is over.