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
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.