Here's a new twist on an old problem.
The Bears are spinning the revolving door at safety before the action gets going this season.
Never ones to give away their depth chart before training camp, the Bears are changing ways. The story really doesn't change though, as the club announced on its Web site this morning that Danieal Manning is on the move again. Manning will open training camp in Friday's 3 p.m. practice at free safety, a position he spent exactly zero time at during the offseason program. Kevin Payne will be the starter at strong safety with Craig Steltz challenging him. Manning will slide to the nickel cornerback role he played last season in passing situations. In the nickel package, Steltz will be at free safety.
"Danieal is getting more of the concept of this defense and his overall football knowledge has improved a lot," coach Lovie Smith announced. "Sometimes it takes players a while before they really get it and I think Danieal has gotten it where it all makes sense to him, and that's why we're putting him in this role right now."
Manning was last seen at free safety in the season finale a year ago. With Mike Brown injured, Manning got the start at Houston where the Bears squandered a 10-point lead and lost to the Texans, surrendering more than 450 yards in the process. One big chunk came on Andre Johnson's uncontested touchdown when Manning blew coverage. It was a coverage mistake Manning made as a rookie in Super Bowl XLI that led to a secondary shakeup in 2007. That's been the one consistent thing under Smith, who has changed quarterbacks, safeties and position coaches on defense rapidly. The Bears have changed starting free safeties 16 times since Smith was hired in 2004, and swapped out starting strong safeties 14 times.
It's been the constant moving of Manning, the second round pick from 2006, that has stunted his growth. He's gone from safety to cornerback to safety to nickel cornerback and now back to safety.
"I've heard people talk about the different positions Danieal has played," Smith said on the Web site. "But that only helps you. He knows exactly what it feels like to play [corner, safety and nickel]. He's played every position in the secondary. That's helped his football knowledge and is going to make him a better free safety."
There is no denying that Manning is the most athletic player in the secondary and the one with the best skill set to be a center fielder. If it works out, it will be a smart move by the coaching staff. But you never know what is going to stick under Smith and what will not. Manning was the nickel back in the preseason last summer before Brandon McGowan was pushed out of his role as strong safety to the nickel to make room for Payne. The change--Manning being shifted to the sideline--happened at the end of preseason.
It just makes you wonder if the coaching staff thought Manning to free safety was a good idea, why wasn't he there for the minicamp in March? Or the offseason program?
Also, Smith announced on the Web site that Zack Bowman will open at left cornerback in place of Charles Tillman, while the starter recovers from back surgery. Bowman gets the nod over Corey Graham, who was moved to free safety at the start of the offseason program and is now going back to cornerback. The Bears will be a short another defensive back besides Tillman as Glenn Earl has informed the team he will retire.