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Two changes in the Bears' starting lineup on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers will be necessitated by injury.

Two more are part of coach Lovie Smith's plan to revamp the secondary, which ranked 30th in the league last season vs. the pass, and surrendered the game-winning 50-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to a wide open Greg Jennings last week at Green Bay.

Danieal Manning has been moved into the starting free safety position, a move Smith tried to make the week before training camp before Manning's pesky hamstring injury foiled those plans. But when Kevin Payne bit on a play fake by Rodgers and abandoned his spot in the deep post to let Jennings go uncontested after cornerback Nathan Vasher slipped, well, most figured something was coming. That's because change isn't really inevitable in the Bears' secondary as it is habitual. This marks the 18th change the Bears have made at free safety in Smith's tenure, a span of 82 games.

"I'm excited,'' Manning said. "It's a great opportunity. I'm quite sure they're going to throw deep a lot, especially me coming back from a hammy injury, they're going to try to go deep."

Manning is the most athletic of the defensive backs, and Smith believes the second-round pick from 2006 has made great strides since being moved into the nickel role last season. Manning has the best range of any safety, and is playing with more instincts now. He sacked Rodgers for a safety at Green Bay. Payne goes to the sideline and rookie sixth-round draft pick Al Afalava will remain the starter at strong safety. When he started last week at Green Bay, that marked the 15th change in starting strong safeties since 2004.

The Bears announced on Thursday that Zack Bowman would take over at cornerback for Vasher. Injuries will sideline middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and strong-side linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. Hunter Hillenmeyer replaces Urlacher and Nick Roach is expected to start in Tinoisamoa's spot, however he will share reps with Jamar Williams. What happens in the nickel package remains to be seen. Payne could enter the game as the free safety and Manning could slide to nickel, or it could open the door for Corey Graham to get on the field as the nickel.

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We should get a pretty good indication of how the Bears feel about Nathan Vasher Saturday night when the Bears face the New York Giants in the second preseason game at Soldier Field.

Lovie Smith made it pretty clear earlier this week that he is waiting on Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman to emerge from the training room and be the starting cornerbacks this season, but that hasn't happened yet, and someone needs to hold down the fort while they're out. Vasher struggled last week at Buffalo, with at least two completions to wide receiver Lee Evans the result of some poor technique.

Smith has walked a fine line in calling out Vasher, but he's included his name in a group of players that need to step up their performances.

"We've had one game,'' Smith said. "With DB's you never know. Just think about it. The quarterback has an opportunity to hold the ball every play. So its tough on the defensive backs. We've seen Nate do some good things. Just like the rest of our football team didn't play as well as we probably would like to have played last week but there's a big challenge coming ahead this week.''

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BOURBONNAIS, Ill.--Lovie Smith did not hand out a starting job on Monday afternoon after the Bears completed their first practice since Saturday's preseason opener, but the coach sure gave a strong indication that Zack Bowman will be in the starting lineup when the season opens Sept. 13 at Lambeau Field.

Bowman is sidelined with a pulled right hamstring right now, but he did some work on the side Monday, joining cornerback Charles Tillman, who is working his way back from back surgery. Smith made it sound like the team is biding its time right now, waiting for the pair to return.

"[Tillman and Bowman] don't have to come out here and prove to us that they can play," Smith said. "So we'll just do what we need to do. Everything we do in general is to set up our play for [Green Bay]. Yeah, we would like to have them out here practicing, but as long as we can get them back around in time, we'll be OK."

Asked if he was endorsing Bowman as a starter on the spot, Smith continued.

"I speak of Bowman based on what he's done since [offseason team activities], and he's played as well as any of the defensive backs. That's how I am looking at it.''

There is no disputing that in the first week of training camp Bowman made more plays than any one player has made in all of camp to this point. He's been out since Aug. 5, and the Bears are hopeful to get him some preseason action soon. They need to because he played in just one regular-season game last year after beginning the season on the practice squad. He suffered a ruptured biceps and his rookie campaign was done.

It doesn't bode well for veteran Nathan Vasher. The hope the team had for him entering camp appears to have faded. Vasher's in good shape, he's been working hard, but the results haven't appeared like anyone would like to see. He's making good money but will be needed when you consider the health risks associated with Tillman and Bowman at this point.

Meanwhile, Corey Graham worked primarily at the nickel in practice and he also got some occasional reps at left cornerback in place of Trumaine McBride. Graham said he is taking a liking to the nickel, and the Bears would be best served to get him comfortable there right now. Danieal Manning will be out for a while as he heals his hamstring injury. The Bears need someone they are comfortable with in that role in reserve, and training Graham will give them two options.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill.--Did the NFL do in Twitter?

I don't know, but my efforts to tweet from the dorm room have been stifled by struggling technology. Perhaps the site will be up and chirping by the time this post is done.

Reports coming out of San Diego now are that Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers could begin talking about a new contract for him soon. Rivers is believed to have been waiting for Eli Manning to strike. Although Manning has a Super Bowl title to his credit, and that's what it is all about, Rivers' statistics over the course of their careers are far superior. Don't think for a second there is any reason other than that for his delay in getting to the bargaining table.

Wanted to Twitter a piece I did for the National Football Post this morning on Jay Cutler and what at some point will be his own negotiation for a contract extension. The Bears have never written the big-money deal for a quarterback before. Since general manager Jerry Angelo took over in 2001, no team has allocated less money to the position. Who did he have to pay? The team has someone to pay now but putting a gauge on that pay day right now is very difficult. When the team goes to a player, they are adamant that the integrity of the current contract be maintained. In other words, the player will get his money but the team isn't going to rip up the current contract and start all over.

The Bears have a history of approaching players during season to see if they can strike a deal and get ahead when it comes to the salary cap. If a deal is done by midseason, money can be applied to the current year's cap. With the Bears sitting on more than $20 million in cap room, doing a Cutler deal now would allow them to put a nice chunk in 2009. Assuming the CBA gets worked out--that looks like the assumption the Giants went under in doing Manning's deal--it's a smart move.

But it's no guarantee that the team and Cutler get to the bargaining table. If they don't, it's possible the Bears could target tight end Greg Olsen for an extension as I wrote here for the NFP. Olsen is entering the third year of his five-year contract and is clearly part of the long term future. Early restructures turn into win-wins. The player gets guaranteed money sooner than he would, and the team gets value moving forward.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill.--Plenty of action from Fridays' first day of practice that we didn't get to in the print/online edition or in the blog previously. Let's take a look at some quotes from the day.

Lovie Smith on cornerback Zack Bowman, who made a couple plays in practice including securing a bobbled interception.

"Zack had a good offseason. I know he made a couple plays out there today, but that's what we've seen from him every time we've given him an opportunity,'' Smith said. "He's got a long ways to go. Again, all the things that happened so far, none of it's been in pads. We're anxious to see the guys in that next step. But with the opportunity Zack's had, he's made the most of it."

Our spin: Bowman has already become Corey Graham from a year ago. Graham capitalized on a good offseason and then produced when Charles Tillman missed time in training camp. The more Bowman impresses, the tougher it will become for Graham to get a look. At some point you would figure secondary coach Jon Hoke will want to get a look at him though.

Alex Brown on the first workout with new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.

"It's tough,'' Brown said. "Sheesh. It was everything we thought it would be though. It was more upbeat than OTA's but we knew it would be that way, but we knew that coming in. It's nothing we didn't expect but what you can't really plan for is being off for a month and a week and coming back for football. You can work at it as much as you want, but it ain't the same. It was good out here. You're going to be tired on the first day."

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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."

We're going to reach into the mailbag for some Four Down Territory before camp gets going. There aren't any major issues hanging in the balance. A year ago, you had Brian Urlacher's contract getting done just before camp and Devin Hester seeking a new contract. In the past, there was a Thomas Jones stakeout to see if he was going to show up. First-round picks have been far from signed at this point in previous years. All is quiet now. The Bears are just getting ready for football. Here we go.

Q: I read your preview for the wide receivers and you don't seem to be giving them much of a chance. Why? I see a talented group of young wide receivers and there's no reason to believe they can't flourish. Eddie Royal was a second-round pick. Brandon Marshall was a fourth-round pick. Shouldn't these guys get a chance with Jay Cutler?

Michael, Parts Unknown

A: The Bears found a talented and productive wide receiver in the third round of the 2004 draft when they selected Bernard Berrian out of Fresno State. Otherwise, the club's track record at the position under general manager Jerry Angelo is a series of misses, some bigger than others. It happens to be one of the more difficult positions to evaluate for the draft, and as Angelo has pointed out previously, the majority of the true No. 1 wideouts in the league are, guess what, first-round picks. The Bears haven't tried a wide receiver in the first round since David Terrell in 2001, and that was two months before Angelo came aboard. We're not suggesting the Bears will be unable to find help from their rookies and unproven players at the position, we're simply pointing out that after Devin Hester and Rashied Davis, that is the only thing the Bears have to lean on. If they try enough players, one of them might work. Bringing in a veteran with marginal and eroding talent would prevent a possible talent from blossoming. All of these players have a different tool box and it will be interesting to see which one(s) step forward in the three weeks of camp.


Q: Is there a veteran on the roster that will be in jeopardy of being cut? Maybe a surprise cut that could be coming?

Alex, Gurnee

A: I don't know if there are any major surprises coming. Sure, there will be some healthy competition for spots at the back end of the roster, but this team is pretty well set. There is not going to be a lot of turnover in the starting lineups and that's usually where you get your surprise cuts. There aren't any players carrying bad contracts that the team will want to unload. Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer will be in a tough spot, particularly if he's still hampered in his recovery from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. If healthy, he deserves an opportunity to be on the roster. Running back Adrian Peterson could be pushed for a spot as it's expected the Bears will at least consider going with three running backs. Even though Rashied Davis is the only wide receiver other than Devin Hester with real NFL experience, he'll probably need to perform well. Defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek has become Mike Brown without the long history of production the former safety had. He'll be pushed and he has to stay healthy. No one is guaranteeing jobs for tight end Michael Gaines or safety Josh Bullocks. None of these strike as potential surprise cuts. All could have a role on the 2009 team.


We have a full edition of Four Down Territory scheduled for Wednesday, but we'll dip into the mailbag now with a question that has popped in from several e-mailers this morning.

Q: Is Jerry Angelo going to make an effort to sign a veteran cornerback now that Charles Tillman is out for at least all of training camp? It can't hurt to add some depth and let someone learn the system during training camp.

Charles, Apopka, Fla.

A: It's certainly not a bad idea but I think you've got to consider a couple of issues on this matter. First, Tillman didn't have surgery yesterday. The procedure was two weeks ago so if the Bears were going to make a move, it's fair to consider that there is at least a chance they would have already done so. Second, the club brought in some veterans for a look in the spring. First, Ken Lucas paid a visit before ultimately returning to his first home in the NFL in Seattle. Then, Rod Hood came in during OTA's before promptly signing with Cleveland. By failing to sign either one of those players, or engage them in contract negotiations, I would venture to guess the decision was made that the Bears would be better off going with the young players they have. Now, would that decision be different right now? Let's just say no one was expecting Tillman to have back surgery after he had shoulder surgery and then missed time with a hyperextended knee.

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Charles Tillman will be placed on the physically unable to perform list Friday at training camp when he fails his physical.

That makes the focus for the Bears during three weeks at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., finding a contingency plan in the event Tillman has not recovered from back surgery in time for the Sept. 13 season opener at Green Bay.

Tillman underwent surgery performed by Dr. Robert Watkins two weeks ago in Los Angeles. He was given a timetable of six to 12 weeks for a return to the field. Six weeks would put Tillman back on the field right around the final preseason game Sept. 3 vs. Cleveland, but teams are so hesitant to use starters in those games that it might be surprising to see him on the field then. The outside range for a return would mean Tillman would miss at least the first three regular-season games. He'll have to be removed from the PUP list before the Sept. 5 roster cutdown to 53 or else he would wind up missing a minimum of six weeks of the regular season. The Bears don't anticipate that happening, but then again they didn't think he'd be hobbled with a back issue after undergoing reconstructive shoulder surgery on Jan. 14.

In fact, it's the third ailment Tillman has dealt with since playing the bulk of last season with injuries to both shoulders. He was cleared for a return from shoulder surgery in June but then was forced to deal with a hyperextended knee. This turns the team's hope that Nathan Vasher returns to form at right cornerback into a need. Zack Bowman got plenty of reps at left corner with Tillman sidelined during the spring. He performed well but that was without pads on. The fifth-round pick from 2008 appeared in one game last season before a torn biceps muscle ended his season.

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We come to our second to final position-by-position breakdown as we close in on packing our bags and heading to Bourbonnais, Ill., and the campus of Olivet Nazarene University. This morning we target special teams.

Projected starters: K Robbie Gould, 6-0, 185, 5th season, Penn State; P Brad Maynard, 6-1, 188, 13th season, Ball State; LS Pat Mannelly, 6-5, 265, 12th season, Duke; KR Danieal Manning, 5-11, 202, 4th season, Abilene Christian; PR Devin Hester, 5-11, 190, 4th season, Miami.

2009 salary cap numbers

Robbie Gould $2,905,200
Devin Hester $6,885,833
Pat Mannelly $962,200
Danieal Manning $885,200
Brad Maynard $1,392,280

Number of specialists on the roster at the start of the 2008 season: 3

Projected number of specialists on 2009 roster at start of the season: 3

The skinny: The Bears didn't get the kind of electric scores they grew accustomed to from Hester, but they still scored on special teams in 2008. Manning ran back a kickoff for a touchdown, Brandon Lloyd and Garrett Wolfe both scored on blocked punts and Zack Bowman scored on a muffed punt. Alex Brown also blocked a 38-yard field goal try by Green Bay's Mason Crosby in the Week 16 meeting with 18 seconds remaining in regulation. The Bears went on to win in overtime. So, it's not like Dave Toub's unit was without major contributions. No one can pinpoint exactly why Hester lost his edge in the return game. He averaged 21.9 yards on kickoffs where he saw about every gimmick imaginable and was worse on punts, averaging only 6.2 yards. There are a handful of theories, all of them probably valid in part. The biggest reason is pretty simple--Hester got a lot more work on offense and that took away from his return game. The stats certainly support that thinking. Hester was on the field for 631 offensive snaps last season vs. 226 in 2007. He had 121 special teams snaps in 2008 vs. 182 in 2007. Another key factor to consider is the turnover the Bears had on special teams. Playing without Pro Bowl special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo for the first time, Hester's return units lacked the mojo they had enjoyed previously. Ayanbadejo wasn't just a tremendous player, he was a leader and knew when the group needed an infusion of energy.

Still, special teams remained solid and wound up finishing eighth in the composite rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News after back-to-back No. 1 finishes. Manning would have been the NFC's Pro Bowl return man if he would have been promoted before the Nov. 16 game at Green Bay. He led the league in kickoff returns at 29.7 yards, and his success may lead opponents to approach him differently this time around. The coverage teams were solid but not as good as they have been in the past.

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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.

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Returning to 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 cornerbacks.

Projected starters: LCB Charles Tillman, 6-1, 198, 7th season, Louisiana-Lafayette; Nathan Vasher, 5-10, 187, 6th season, Texas.

Others

Zack Bowman, 6-1, 193, 2nd season, Nebraska
Rudy Burgess, 5-10, 185, 1st season, Arizona State
*Corey Graham, 6-0, 198, 3rd season, New Hampshire
Marcus Hamilton, 5-11, 185, 2nd season, Virginia
Danieal Manning, 5-11, 202, 4th season, Abilene Christian
Trumaine McBride, 5-9, 181, 3rd season, Ole Miss
D.J. Moore, 5-9, 183, Rookie, Vanderbilt
Woodny Turenne, 6-0, 184, Rookie, Louisville

* Graham will be listed in the safety 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

LCB: Tillman, Bowman or Graham
RCB: Vasher, Bowman or Graham, Moore
NICKEL: Manning

2009 salary cap numbers

Zack Bowman $315,200
Rudy Burgess $315,200
Corey Graham $502,575
Marcus Hamilton $390,200
Danieal Manning $885,200
Trumaine McBride $479,012
D.J. Moore $426,688
Charles Tillman $4,716,666
Woodny Turenne $310,333
Nathan Vasher $4,866,666

Number of cornerbacks on the roster at the start of the 2008 season:
5 (including Manning, who the Bears list as a safety)

Projected number of cornerbacks on 2009 roster at start of the season: 6 (including Manning and Graham)

The skinny: What could have been the beginning of turnover at the position looks to be halted by the re-emergence of Vasher during the offseason program. While Ricky Manning Jr. fell into the coaching staff's dog house a year before and was never seen again, Vasher has worked himself out of it. At least that is the way it looks right now. The veteran and former Pro Bowl performer lined up with the first team throughout the offseason program, and we're reminded of what general manager Jerry Angelo told us after the draft: "I feel he will come back strong. 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, lack of, 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.''

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