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It is far from the greatest game of his career, but Devin Hester's performance as a rookie in the 2006 game at Arizona is the one that propelled him into living rooms around the country as the Bears mounted one of the greatest comebacks in the history of "Monday Night Football.'' Hester's 83-yard punt return for a touchdown put the Bears over the top in a 24-23 comeback victory in a game they trailed 20-0 at halftime.

And as the Bears began preparations for their meeting with the Cardinals on Sunday, Hester was not practicing this afternoon at Halas Hall. He suffered an ankle or foot injury in the win over Cleveland and that is believed to be what has him sidelined. We'll see what kind of light coach Lovie Smith wants to shine on the issue after practice.

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My final cuts are in.

Sorry, no refunds for a lack of accuracy on this one. Got a chuckle with David Haugh from the Tribune when we e-mailed back and forth about undertaking the same project. Our selections are pretty similar, and we didn't share notes.

Here is my list, and you can find the story from the print edition here.

Quarterback (2): Jay Cutler, Caleb Hanie

The Bears will find a practice squad quarterback and it could be Brett Basanez.

Running backs/fullbacks (5): Matt Forte, Kevin Jones, Garrett Wolfe, Adrian Peterson, Jason McKie

Two weeks ago, Peterson would not have made my cut.

Wide receivers (6): Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Devin Aromashodu, Rashied Davis, Juaquin Iglesias, Johnny Knox

I hope Brandon Rideau gets a shot somewhere because the guys does the right things, says the right things and probably can play. Draft picks who won't play block his path here.

Tight ends (3): Greg Olsen, Desmond Clark, Kellen Davis

Just didn't see enough of Michael Gaines in preseason.


Offensive line (8): Orlando Pace, Frank Omiyale, Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, Chris Williams, Kevin Shaffer, Josh Beekman, Dan Buenning

The Bears didn't expect to keep Lance Louis when they drafted him, although he's done plenty to stick around on the practice squad. On paper, it's the deepest line Jerry Angelo has had with the Bears.

Defensive line (10):
Alex Brown, Anthony Adams, Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye, Mark Anderson, Henry Melton, Israel Idonije, Marcus Harrison, Jarron Gilbert, Matt Toeaina

If they drop down to nine here the final cut is between Melton and Toeaina. And for my money Toeaina is the player they will need more this season.

Linebackers (6): Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Nick Roach, Jamar Williams, Hunter Hillenmeyer

Tried to find a spot for special teams man Darrell McClover but couldn't make it happen. I could be wrong. Undrafted rookie free agent Kevin Malast will get a job somewhere, even if it's just on the practice squad.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill.--Danieal Manning has been to the coach's office plenty of times, so when Lovie Smith called him a week-and-a-half ago and told him to come on in to Halas Hall, he didn't think anything of it.

He's still beaming after the news he received that day. The second-round draft pick has been moved back to free safety, the position he broke into the league at as a rookie starter in the 2006 Super Bowl season. He'll be there with the first team when the Bears take the practice field at 3 p.m. at Olivet Nazarene University. Manning has started 28 games at free safety over the last three seasons and is the most athletic member of the secondary.

The plan is for him to wear two hats on defense. He'll play free safety in the base package and move to the nickel in the sub package when Craig Steltz will come on the field and be the free safety.

"I was ecstatic,'' Manning said. "I was really excited about it. I said, `I'm ready to do it.' I have taken a liking to nickel so much. I never even thought about going back to safety but when he told me, it was just great. I was trying to take nickel to another level. Now, I get to do both.''

The key for Manning is being assignment. He has to be instinctive, though, and that means being able to play without thinking about it too much. He's suffered the occasional lapse in the past and when that happens at safety, there is no other line of defense. Still, when Manning is on the field his speed and range allow him to clean up the mistakes of others.

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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."

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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.

While most other NFL teams are slowly reeling in the remainder of their draft classes with signings that are becoming more plentiful by the day, the Bears have had that business wrapped up for more than a month. The season is fast approaching and the Bears' first training camp practice at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., is two weeks from today. We've already put in our request for an 80-degree day with full sunshine and a light breeze. Individual game tickets go on sale a week from Saturday on July 25 at noon via Ticketmaster phone and Internet outlets.

As our 30-day countdown to camp marches on with little news, we're going to jump around with a few different items this morning. But first, we have a little news.

According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the Bears and Olivet Nazarene have reached an agreement for the team to leave camp following practice on Aug. 20. The contract between the club and the school allowed the Bears to occupy campus through Aug. 21 but school officials asked the team to leave a day earlier to allow them time to prepare for the arrival of the student body of 2,500 beginning Aug. 22. That means the Bears will be at another location for their Aug. 21 walk through in advance of their second preseason game Aug. 22 at Soldier Field vs. the New York Giants. For a complete training camp schedule, go here.

*** KC Joyner was able to sidestep much of the Jay Cutler firestorm he's been at the center of recently in another chat on ESPN.com. It's Joyner's opinion that this could be a better team than the one that went to Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season.

"Wouldn't you know it, I only get one question in and a Cutler comment gets posted. I'll say this about the Bears - they get a lot of turnovers and have the next Brian Westbrook in their backfield. They went to the Super Bowl with less talent than what they have now. Cutler will hurt them at times but many teams have won with QBs that have high bad decision rates, so they have at least a 50/50 shot at the division."

That is high praise for running back Matt Forte that we detailed here. No one seems up in arms with that comparison by Joyner. By the way, later on in his Thursday chat he clarified that he has Minnesota as the favorite to claim the NFC North, but called them a 51/49 favorite over the Bears.

The biggest moves the Bears made on defense, or at least the ones getting the most attention, were the changes on the coaching staff. Rod Marinelli's addition as the defensive line coach will create some storylines during training camp, and I think a lot of people are interested to watch the drill work he does with his players on the side. Lovie Smith's role as play caller will come more into focus when the season begins.

But we bounced the two biggest personnel changes on defense off Bill Barnwell when we spoke to the managing editor of Football Outsiders about the upcoming season. Their mean projection gives the Bears a 49 percent chance to have 11 or more victories, and that was the highest figure for any NFC club. It can all be found in the Football Outsiders Almanac, which will be available on Amazon.com in a few weeks and can be ordered in PDF format from their Web site.

First, we asked Barnwell about the addition of linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who is projected to be the starter on the strong side after signing a one-year contract. St. Louis cut the veteran loose after the Rams failed in their bid to trade him. He became the first rookie in Rams' franchise history to lead the defense in tackles when he played the position for Smith and Bob Babich in 2003.

"It really depends on Tinoisamoa and how he fits into their scheme and how quickly he catches up on things,'' Barnwell said. "I understand he's had experience in the system in the past. He was playing for the Rams. The Rams didn't have a great defense last season. You look at his run numbers and they were atrocious. He made a lot of tackles but they were seven or eight yards from the line of scrimmage, they were coming well down the field. The defense wasn't good and his numbers were not very good. You have to put the scheme in context. It's not like baseball where if a guy is going to hit 40 home runs in one city he's going to hit 40 home runs in another city. He could be better this season.''

What Football Outsiders does is study each play and they look at a statistic they call the "stop rate" and average yards for running plays when the linebacker was credited with making the tackle. It's not a perfect system but they have other stats, one of which is called "defeats," defined as the total number of plays they stop the offense from gaining first down on third or fourth down, or make a play behind the line of scrimmage or create a turnover.

Tinoisamoa, who played weak side in St. Louis last season, was credited with 48 stops, 32 fewer than Lance Briggs. Tinoisamoa ranked 93rd out of 99 total linebackers vs. the run. But as Barnwell pointed out, these statistics are drawing from small sample sizes and they can change from year to year. Switch teams and defenses and it is not going to be the same. Tinoisamoa will have more talent around him this season and it's reasonable to expect he'll be a different player. Of course, the Bears thought Adam Archuleta was coming to a more talented defense when he left Washington for the Bears. That didn't work out so well for Archuleta or the Bears.

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It's been a while since we went through the mailbag so we'll knock out more than four questions this morning in Four Down Territory as we take a little break from the position-by-position previews that have been running in our 30-day countdown to Bourbonnais. Here we go.

Q: What about a contract extension for Danieal Manning? He's slated to have an uncanny season at kick returner which means, of course, that the Bears will need the extra money to give him an extension and convert him to wide receiver.

Mike, Parts Unknown

A: Looks like we have a jokester here. Is that Manning switch right after Brian Urlacher is moved to free safety and Chris Zorich is re-signed to play middle linebacker? It's a good question when it comes to Manning. Not sure what he is going to have to do to have an "uncanny" season. Manning would have made the Pro Bowl last season if he had replaced Devin Hester as the kickoff returner about a month prior to the move that was made in Week 11. He averaged 29.7 yards per return, the club's highest total in nearly 35 years, and became only the fifth player in franchise history to top 1,000 yards for a season. Now, consider first that Manning didn't see all of the gimmicks (bloops, squibs, sky kicks, you name it) that Hester did when he was the primary kickoff returner. Opponents will likely pay more attention to Manning this coming season but special teams coordinator Dave Toub is quick to adjust and his schemes have proven the test of time. Defensively, Manning was on the field one-third of the time in 2008, getting 370 snaps out of the 1,111 total. He seemed to make progress as a nickel back, particularly in the second half of the season. Manning was in that role during the spring until a hamstring injury, one of many suffered on the roster, sidelined him and Corey Graham took his place for the last two weeks of OTA's. It looks like Manning will remain in that role entering training camp but if Nathan Vasher nails down the right cornerback job and Craig Steltz winds up being the free safety, the coaching staff might give Graham more of a look at nickel, where he played one game last season. Is there a possibility the club re-signs Manning, who is entering the final year of his contract? Sure. He probably should have been on the list of players we made. But a kickoff returner who does or does not double as a nickel corner isn't going to get a huge contract.


Q: You didn't mention Lance Louis in your preview of the fullbacks. Is there a reason why? Didn't the Bears say he could play tight end as well as fullback when they selected him?

Oscar T., Chicago

A: There is a somewhat popular notion that Lance Louis will reprise the role of William Perry and do some heavy duty work in the backfield. We don't see it happening. We don't see Louis playing any tight end, either. The Bears don't have a spot at tight end for him with Desmond Clark, Greg Olsen, Kellen Davis and Michael Gaines. They don't need a project at the position because they already have one in Davis. Louis, who was issued No. 60, which is an ineligible number, is going to have a hard time making the roster as a seventh-round pick. He'd have an even more difficult time making the 45-man gameday roster, and it's unlikely he'd be active for a possible gimmick play involving him lining up at an eligible position.


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Final results are in because, well, we decided it was time to close the polls on our question that started our countdown to training camp last Wednesday.

The question was posed -- We're in July! It's football season! What is the Bears' biggest issue heading into camp in Bourbonnais, Ill.?

More than 1,400 votes later (I'm pretty sure there are more than 1,400 of you out there to vote), the No. 1 concern (among the five responses we created) was how the defensive line will turn around under new coach Rod Marinelli.

Here is how voting broke down:

1. It starts in the trenches and this team will not get any better defensively unless Rod Marinelli does indeed possess the magic touch with that line. 35% (493 votes)

2. Jay Cutler is a great addition, but it's about the defense. Can Lovie Smith the Play Caller turn around this unit that has struggled at times for two seasons? 32% (444 votes)

3. Umm, exactly who is going to line up at free safety? I'm not sure the team addressed this position during an eventful offseason. 19% (267 votes)

4. Umm, Jay Cutler is going to throw the ball to who? I'm not sure the team can count on its wide receivers. 10% (144 votes)

5. It starts in the trenches and from the looks of things the offensive line will have three new starters. Don't overlook the obvious. 4% (59 votes)

Thought it would be interesting to turn back the clock a year and look at some of the storylines surrounding the Bears at that time and how they turned out.

We ran a list of 10 issues facing the organization entering training camp in the print edition last July. We'll include a short synopsis of each one.

1. QB derby. Amid swirling rumors that the Bears may have interest in Chris Simms as a No. 3 quarterback, we still don't know who the No. 1 will be. Leave it to the Bears to do this.

ONE YEAR LATER: What a difference that one year makes. The addition of Jay Cutler via trade with the Denver Broncos makes this the most-anticipated training camp in years. While quarterback carousels dominated camp news in the past the hope is that Cutler will lock down the position for close to a decade. That doesn't mean Cutler won't be a daily storyline in camp. Prepare for QB stories written every which way.

2. Defense first. The Bears plummeted to 28th in team defense last season and it's yet to be determined if it was an injury-induced aberration, or a signal that Bob Babich could be on the hot seat.

ONE YEAR LATER: That defense didn't perform a whole lot better in 2008 and injuries were not reason to blame. Babich has effectively been demoted and Lovie Smith will now call the plays on defense. This remains a valid question moving into 2009. Can the Bears' defense return to championship form? The Bears have tried changing players, they've invested heavily in many players and they've certainly shuffled through an inordinate number of coaches on the defensive side of the ball. Next to come under real fire could be the defensive scheme if things don't change. Rod Marinelli represents the fourth line coaching for Smith entering his sixth season as head coach. Babich will be the third linebackers coach in as many seasons. Jon Hoke becomes the fourth secondary coach.

3. Face of the franchise. This could all of a sudden become the No. 1 storyline if Brian Urlacher's ongoing contract squabble blows up. Even if he isn't in camp--and who knows what the chances are for this--he'll be game ready come the regular season because he's a workout warrior. Some have been concerned about a decline in play because he didn't make the Pro Bowl, but at the end of last season Urlacher was playing as well as any defensive player in the league.

ONE YEAR LATER: Urlacher's contract demands were met with an $18 million, one-year extension but Cutler could fast become the face of the franchise. Now two years removed from the Pro Bowl, Urlacher is being paid like an elite player. Perhaps he will benefit from Smith running the defense.

4. Line dance. None of the other rebuilding phases on offense will be particularly successful if the overhauled line doesn't mesh. Rookie Chris Williams will be the key and his development in the coming weeks at left tackle is critical.

ONE YEAR LATER: The Bears managed to do fine on the line last season and Williams had nothing to do with the success. Line coach Harry Hiestand has quietly done a terrific job for several seasons and there's another rebuilding project in the works that finds Williams on the right side this time. The key this time around could be keeping left tackle Orlando Pace healthy but the emergence of Williams is essential not just for this season but for the longterm. The good thing is the Bears have plenty of depth here.

5. Born to run. There certainly won't be a distraction this summer with Cedric Benson having to answer a myriad of questions unrelated to his failed efforts to live up to his status as the fourth pick in the '05 draft. Matt Forte certainly won't be under pressure to exceed Benson's production. It's about replacing Thomas Jones, remember him? Forte is a gifted runner who the Bears believe is a first-round talent.

ONE YEAR LATER: The Bears were on the money when they said Forte was a first-round talent. Preserving him will be key this season as he wore down by season's end. Forte can be one of the top backs in the league while still sharing some of the work with a rejuvenated Kevin Jones.

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If anyone is ready for a break from the grind of a long offseason you would figure it might be coach Lovie Smith.

The Bears went headlong into revamping their defense in early January. Smith officially announced he was taking over the unit and put the assistants through boot camp on the dry erase board in the basement at Halas Hall. It was just the beginning of an exciting but long 5 1/2 months.

Yet there Smith stood Wednesday afternoon following the final OTA practice as energetic as ever. He didn't look ready for training camp. He looked ready for the start of the regular season. So, coach, looking forward to some time away now?

"You never get that far away from it,'' Smith said. "I am having a blast being involved a little bit more like that. I have time throughout, there are certain periods when I am looking at the offense, seeing it, getting a chance to go and watch all of the individual things. That part of it, I am excited.

"But that's not going to be why we're gonna come back. We're going to come back because of what our assistant coaches, defensively, what they've done. Jon Hoke, Rod [Marinelli], Bob [Babich], Gill Byrd, what they have been doing with their individual groups."

*** We wouldn't read too much into Corey Graham playing nickel the past two weeks, not with a tight hamstring sidelining Danieal Manning. But Graham did play nickel for two games last season and it is another option for him to get on the field. If Craig Steltz continues to run with the first team at free safety and Nathan Vasher reclaims his job at right cornerback, that will eliminate two options for Graham.

Kevin Payne and Craig Steltz spent Wednesday running with the first team at safety. That could be one of the more compelling positions to watch come training camp, but coach Lovie Smith said the voluntary offseason program has helped answer some questions. Steltz, no question, has been one of the bigger climbers this offseason. The belief is his instincts and smarts will help make up for a lack of range at free safety.

"It's clearer,'' Smith said, of the position. "There are lot of positions that will go down to training camp. We're excited about where we right now, but we have to get there and then we'll really know. The next part of the evaluation process is to see the guys in pads, then in the preseason games.

"I like our preseason schedule, the teams that we have to play to get ready. A team like Buffalo that can run and pass, a similar offense. The next week a physical team like the Giants coming in. The third game of course is normally the game that everyone looks at, and to go on the road playing of course in a prime-time game, all of that is getting us ready for of course the Packers.''

*** Corey Graham was not in the mix at safety. He's been playing nickel cornerback since Danieal Manning was "nicked'' last week. Graham has gotten work at nickel, safety and cornerback this offseason. Graham played nickel for two games last season.

"You're just trying to find a way to play no matter where it is--safety, corner or nickel,'' Graham said. "It doesn't really matter to me. I just want to get out on the field and try to help out.''

*** Staying in the secondary, Charles Tillman was out as he continues to work his way back from shoulder surgery. Zack Bowman got work at left corner with the starters, and Smith singled him out for his work the past few months. Proving he can stay healthy moving forward will be the key.

The player who stood out Wednesday was Trumaine McBride, who was with the second team at right corner. McBride picked off a pass that went off the hands of Devin Hester and then broke up passes to Michael Gaines and Adrian Peterson on the next two snaps. Three snaps and three plays on the ball.

*** Caleb Hanie has clearly taken control of whatever competition there is to be the backup quarterback. He's edged ahead of Brett Basanez. Hanie throws a good deep ball and that was evident on his pass to Juaquin Iglesias on the final play of the workout.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Craig Steltz category.

Corey Graham is the previous category.

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