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7 days to Camp: Payne, Steltz leaders, but nothing set at safety

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Continuing with our position-by-position breakdowns as we close in on being a week away from the first practice of the summer at Olivet Nazarene University, we focus on the safeties.

Projected starters: SS Kevin Payne, 6-0, 212, 3rd season, Louisiana-Monroe; FS Craig Steltz, 6-1, 210, 2nd season, LSU

Others

Al Afalava 5-11, 212, Rookie, Oregon State
Josh Bullocks 6-0, 207, 5th season, Nebraska
Dahna Deleston 6-0, 211, Rookie, Connecticut
Glenn Earl 6-1, 212, 5th season, Notre Dame
* Corey Graham 6-0, 198, 3rd season, New Hampshire

* Graham was listed in the cornerback preview also. The Bears list him on their Web site as a safety but that move might not be permanent at this point.

Projected depth chart

SS: Payne, Bullocks
FS: Steltz, Graham, Bullocks

2009 salary cap numbers

Al Afalava $335,150
Josh Bullocks $1,200,000
Dahna Deleston $311,666
Glenn Earl $540,200
Corey Graham $502,575
Kevin Payne $502,700
Craig Steltz $501,676

Number of safeties on the roster at the start of the 2008 season:
5 (counting Danieal Manning)

Projected number of safeties on 2009 roster at start of the season: 4 (counting Graham but excluding Manning, who is listed with cornerbacks)

The skinny:
Safety might be the position where you find the most legitimate and real competition for a starting job going on in camp, certainly on the defensive side of the ball. Nothing is locked down here but Payne will probably emerge as the strong safety and he played well there at times last season. The switch with Mike Brown in midseason when Payne was shifted to free safety didn't play to his strengths. Payne is a physical player who had offseason shoulder surgery a year after missing most of his rookie season with a broken arm, so he needs to stay on the field to create a longterm future for himself. Remember, it was the addition of Payne in the 2007 draft that was the leading factor in the team trading Chris Harris away to Carolina. Payne has a decent nose for the ball and does well when he has it in his hands, a product of his early days in college when he was a running back.

What will happen with Steltz? He's been labeled strictly a strong safety by some in the organization but it was the fourth-round pick from 2008 who spent a lot of time at free safety during the offseason program. Steltz doesn't have the range you'd like there, but he's intelligent and is a strong communicator and those attributes right there might given him an edge. We're interested to see how it plays out in the opening days of camp and who goes where. Of course, how they open in July isn't always how they open in September. Remember, the Bears moved the secondary all around before the final preseason game last year, promoting Payne, benching Brandon McGowan and in doing so taking Danieal Manning out of the nickel role.

Challenging Steltz will be Bullocks, who was signed to a one-year deal. Only $525,000 of Bullocks' contract was guaranteed, so he's got to make the roster to collect on the bulk of his pay. He's more athletic than Steltz but was in a rut before leaving New Orleans. It will be very interesting to see where Graham lands. He spent the final two weeks of the offseason program filling in for Manning (pulled hamstring) at nickel. We've yet to see him really get a chance at safety, but he could factor in the process here. Earl has experience but might wind up being worked as a reserve nickel back. Afalava is a hard hitter who comes in a smaller package. The team badly needed a free safety but simply didn't see any in the draft, and the Bears grabbed him in the sixth round. He'll have a chance to make the team--and the Bears might keep a total of 10 defensive backs--but he'll have to show an understanding for the defense and be a demon on special teams. Deleston is in the same position as Afalava but without draft status.

The upside: Payne nails down the strong safety job and doesn't have to challenge for the team lead in tackles because not as much action is getting to him. Someone, anyone steps forward at free safety and proves all the ruckus this offseason has been for nothing. Coaches will tell you that defenses can get by at the position. The Bears would be happy with that. They just don't want to be burned at the last line of defense. New secondary coach Jon Hoke has a chance to make an immediate impact.

The downside: The revolving door at both safety positions continues and the Bears, who entered this offseason figuring they needed one safety, find out they really going to need two. Realistically, what kind of expectations can you have here, though? Expectations are created by two things--draft status and contract size. The team has not invested either here.

On the hot seat: It would probably be more difficult to find someone who isn't on the hot seat. Asked about safety midway through the offseason, Smith said everything was open, meaning Payne had to win the job at strong safety. That wasn't a ringing endorsement, although the coach always says that there is competition across the board. Steltz has to prove he can play a position some don't think is best for him, unless he somehow supplants Payne. Graham wants a seat, meaning a starting position, when the music stops playing. Bullocks is trying to get his career back on path. For the rest of the candidates, nothing is assured.

Final thought:
More attention was paid to ex-Bear Mike Brown than almost any other former player in the last decade this offseason. He didn't sign with the Kansas City Chiefs until last month, and there were constantly inquiries--will the Bears bring back Brown? He might just prove to be the kind of savvy veteran that can help a Chiefs team looking to rebuild but the Bears almost moved on a year earlier. They'd made up their mind to part ways with him, and really it might have been the best thing for Brown. You don't want to be in a situation where there are people who can't get past the injury history.

Previous previews:

Quarterback

Defensive end

Running back

Defensive tackle

Fullback

Linebacker

Offensive line

Cornerbacks

Tight ends

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20 Comments

Let's look at the passing games of the teams in our division:

Detroit--Calvin Johnson, who is capable of beating any bracketed coverage with a freakish combination of size, strength, and speed. Pettigrew is a rookie, but still a likely mismatch for safeties. Not much else.

Green Bay--Driver, Jennings, Jones, Nelson are very deep and talented. Will tax a secondary to cover them all

Minnesota--Berrian, the 1 route wonder, and the rest are middle of the pack. Harvin and Sidney Rice could be electric with Favre throwing the ball, but Bobby Wade and Shiancoe are serviceable at best.

If our starting safeties are Steltz and Payne, we had better pray for a better pass rush. Neither are particularly rangy or natural in coverage. Both do their best work when they are in the box playing the run. That should help with Peterson, Smith, and Grant, but does not account for Rodgers, Culpepper/Stafford, and Favre/Jackson/Rosenfels.

Our best chance of a well-rounded defense is if the free safety spot is manned by Corey Graham or Danieal Manning, both of which are not very comfortable back there. But they are probably the two best athletes we have in the secondary, and would give us the best coverage options.

I am concerned, but we will see what happens. Most teams will think they can run on the Bears all day, and until we prove otherwise, the safeties will spend a lot of time pursuing running plays, which plays to the strengths of Payne and Steltz. I still think Steltz is not stout enough to start in the NFL at either position. he has size, but it doesn't seem to translate well to the impact he makes when tackling.

I still say the most physical member of the secondary is Danieal Manning. If he could ever get the free spot figured out, he could be a dynamic player for us, and give Otogwe a run for his money for the turnover title in the NFC. He could also be a great strong safety, but we have 25 of them already on the roster....

I am starting to drink the kool-aid and think Lovie was right. The most important acquisition in the offseason for the Bears was Rod Marinelli. If he does what they think he can do, the safety position will not be as big an issue. If he doesn't, we are in for a long season against the pass. Jon Hoke also has a lot of hero/goat potential this year with the talent we have in the secondary.

Get camp started already! I am ready for football! baseball is p!ssing me off!

I'm not an expert so I might be way off base. But what always impressed me was Mike Brown's intelligent and intuition as a safety. Being in the right place at the right time. And similarly, the lack of these same skills in D. Manning.

I do think the depth chart will play out as above but what mystifies me is why the Bears have so many apparent SS's vs FS's in this list.

Are any of the following potential FS 'projects': Earl, Afalava, Daheston? And, what was it the Bears saw in Bullocks? Was he a bid fit for the scheme in N.O. ?

The fact that the Bears are scrambling to find a FS is enough proof that the Bears let Mike Brown go a year too soon.

But what's done is done. While I think the defense as a whole will be better than last year, I think we will give up some bigger plays to the opposing offeses on account of our safeties.

I like Steltz and think he will be OK.

Safety is a position where "measurables" will not always tell the whole story. A good football player with lesser physical gifts will often beat out a great athlete.

The Bears have had good luck in the past with smart guys at safety. Anybody else remember a marginal athlete who was supposed to be too slow? He made 38 interceptions over 12 years from the safety position?

I actually like Steltz. I think he'll do just fine back there as a free safety. Mike Brown as thought of as the same, intelligent, knows where he is on the field and where his teammates are on the field, limit coverage range, not fast enough and yet if it wasn't for his injury curse with the bears I think he would have been to a few more Pro Bowls. Lighten up fellow Bears fans, Steltz and Payne will ease all your worries when the season starts. mark my words..........i told you so..........

MOMO,
Brown couldn't have played free safety anyway. he has lost way too much range due to injuries. The problem we had last year is Payne and Brown (both SS) were on the field at the same time, which created a serious liability in coverage range. Payne is a box guy with decent cover skills, but he should never be considered a coverage guy at all.

MS,
That guy you are talking about also had outstanding instincts (perhaps from his Ivy league education) and rarely took false steps in diagnosing a play. It remains to be seen whether Steltz, Payne, Afalava, Bullocks, Graham, Manning, or anyone else on the roster has the instincts to make up for their lack of experience/range/speed...

Josh Bullocks is a joke and should't have even been signed. Anyone see his youtube video.

Batter-coated, deep-fried garbage. In an NFL where the four conference -championship teams last year boasted the four best safeties in football. Pattern?

Competition is great but talent first is paramount...

Steltz will be a future HOFer with 30 probowl appearances! I know these things just like I said the same about Mark Bradely and Rex Grossman.

Oh niddly-diddly-foo-foo-happy-sunshine-smiles!

I'm curious . . . what coaches keep saying you can't get by at FS. Having played the position, I find that comment amusing.

Anyone remember 'getting by' in the SB vs Indy? I still see the FS choke by D. Manning in my head.

Kevin Bumstead.... I mean Creighton,

Once again your poor spelling gives you away.

Man up. Then you can talk smack. Until you honor your pledge to humiliate yourself in front of Solider Field please pipe down. So Creighton are you a man who honors his word or a coward? I am hoping you are a man.

We'll be fine at safety as long as Payne "WRAPS HIS ARMS"!!....please, no more Mike Brown talk!!..His leaving is the second best thing that happened this off season!!! The first, what else but getting rid of that loser Orton! ORTON SUCKS, BROWN TOO!!!! BEAR DOWN!!!

Joe,
The Bears were good at not allowing the big plays last year. Mike Brown had a lot of football instincts and guts (your characterization of Gary Fencik also characterizes Brown) that allowed him to play better than what his physical tools alone would allow. Maybe Brown's not a true FS, but what's the point of letting him go if you don't have one to take his place. Of course, Craig Steltz needs to get his shot too, but watching the Texans game last year gave me the impression that it was still early for Steltz, and besides, wouldn't it make far more sense to get a true and viable FS before letting the current one go? Just my thoughts.

you are wasting your time MD Kevin...it's very obvious creighton here is a narcissistic coward. all this talk and badgering from him yet never once can 'man up' when he is supposed to. although, watching brando humiliate him over and over again is mildly amusing.

steltz won't suck as bad as bullocks but then again gould would probably play better than bullocks. i'm with joe, bring on football already!!

The Joyner methodology to determine the NFL's best safety, is to count how many and the most effective use of "Safety pins" the player uses on his uniform during a game. It is also quite important to give 1/2 point each for near tackles, near interceptions and near turnovers. For that safety that does intercept the ball and returns it, he gets the percentage of yards he returns it to the end zone and a full point if he returns it to the house on an interception. Based on the above criteria the Bears surely will have a Probowl caliber safety this year.

Now for the real stuff.

Corey Graham has size, speed and is not afraid to tackle. He has been impressive at corner although Joyner did not think so. Of the group Graham seems to have the most FS talent and my gut tells me the instinct to be very good at Free Safety. Is he smart enough to be the leader, know the defense and be insictive like Mike Brown, maybe but not likely in his first year at the position.

Steltz seems to be a prototypical strong safety but when he played last year seemed to be positioned in the right spot for the coverage, could tackle and did not fall(as much) for the play action that has plaqued and burned many a BEars safety's in the recent past.

Bullocks, I know there are far more experts about him on this blog than me. The tools maybe good enough for this position, he had some good production when he first came out and played on a poor Saints defensive team that left him on an island. As we all know without a pass rush, every defender in the league except maybe one or two will be toasted by great wide receivers and good QB's. Maybe, just maybe Bullocks could be quite serviceable at the free safety position if either Graham or Steltz falters.

Manning has a job as kick returner and nickel he has been very good at both. Lets not challenge him by adding the free safety position, albeit he does have the physical talent, but the instinct and smart defensive knowledge haven't been exhibited yet.

The new rookie talent will show during camp and who knows which of these guys will impress? The Oregon kid seems to be a srong safety candidate more so than free safety.

At strong safety Payne looks to be a missle that can make turnovers and make plays. Payne floundered when he played free last year, lets keep him at strong where he made plays on the ball with interceptions etc. He should be a good one for awhile at strong safety but lets keep him there all season so he can focus on just one job, strong safety.

My picks

Starter Free Safety: Corey Graham with Bullocks as backup.

Starter at Strong Safety: Payne with Steltz as back up.

Prediction: Afalava will be a stud on special teams and make the team backing up the strong safety position if an injury occurs to free safety Steltz moves back to Free maybe starting over Bullocks.

The good news is that Marinelli is for real, the Bears will have a pass rush this year, the linebackers will be improved and the safety play will not be exposed as in the recent past.

Top 5 defense and the Super bowl if only the Bears can find a proven
vet wide receiver opposite Hester. The rooks and second year Bennett will be good,but the Bears have to have a vet WR to extend the playoffs to reach the Superbowl.

Go Bears, I truly cannot wait.

I think Kevin Payne will have a break out season barring injury. The guy has a nose for the ball carrier and can hit. The 4 picks he had last season proves he has pretty good range also, especially for a strong safety. I think Payne is gonna be a good one at strong safety.

Free safety wise, its starting to look like 2nd year safety Craig Steltz is gonna get the first crack at the job. Steltz has nice size at 6-1 210lbs for the position, but lacks the elite speed you would like for the position [free safety]. What Steltz does have is very good instincts and anticipation to make plays. The scouting report on Steltz coming out say's "Steltz consistently reads the quarterback from the deep zone." Proof, remember the int Steltz had in the Lion game last season that prevented a go ahead touchdown for Detroit. So the guy can make plays. Another thing I like about Steltz is he was known as being very strong and dedicated at LSU and even had to be kicked out of the weight room, the Bears need this type of player. The coaching staff seems to have confidence in him, Bears GM Jerry Angelo said earlier in the off-season he also thinks Steltz might have what it takes to make it at free safety for Chicago, I'll be pulling for him. And yes, IM READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL GO BEARS!!

Can I please point out that Mike Brown switched to Strong Safety halfway through last year. At this moment in time the bears have 50 or so Strong Safetys and the likes of Payne, Steltz, Manning, Graham etc all have a much larger upside to Brown(at this point in his career). Now I'm not down on Mike, far from it, but his legs were gone which is why Payne played so much Free Safety last year. As much as I'd have loved to see Mike suit it up again and go lay some wood the Bears have better SS's at this point in his career and unfortunately he can't play FS anymore. I think the biggest pity is that he wasn't a career Bear and couldn't transition to a coaching role this season. Best of luck with the Chiefs though Mike. Steltz or Graham will do enough in the FS role to be servicable and with a few games under their belt maybe even good as both have the physical tools, though maybe lack a little range. As Biggs pointed out, it'll be all about the pass rush. They'll make this secondary and defence feared again.

You have to ask yourself.... In today's NFL, what exactly seperates a FS from a CB ???

Seriously, the whole "we don't have a FS" thing is getting old. The game has changed. Teams want the best coverage players they can get on the field.. The SS is the hammer, the run support guy and the FS is the cover guy, the man responsible for covering more then his own half of the field when the SS drops in the box or blitzes.

Corey Graham will make a fine FS because he has solid coverage skills and is an above average tackler. He fits the mold perfectly with his speed, size, coverage skills and tackling ability. It is up to him when he wins the job because he has to prove he has learned the position before Lovie will throw him out there. My money is on Steltz starting opening day and Graham taking over before mid-October.

Go Bears !!

For free safety, I agree with Dahlilama and, if I had to make a prediction, Bensonsucks. I think Graham, of the players the Bears have now, would make the best FS based on talent. But a FS needs certain instincts, and from what I've read, Graham has not shown them yet. Hopefully he can learn the position, Steltz will not be a good FS, he's simply not fast enough.

That all said, FS is probably the least important position on defense. I for one will be watching No. 91 every play he's on the field. If he's being disruptive and/or drawing a double team, the defense will do well. If not, well, we've seen it the last two seasons, unless Harrison or someone else steps up at the position.

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This page contains a single entry by Brad Biggs published on July 24, 2009 5:17 AM.

NFL makes first day of 2010 draft meaningless to Bears was the previous entry in this blog.

6 days to Camp: Some off the radar players to keep an eye on is the next entry in this blog.

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