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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."

If you're following the blog of Richmond McGee, the logical next logical step is for the Bears to have the free-agent punter take the roster spot created by the retirement of Glenn Earl.

The veteran safety Earl, a Naperville North and Notre Dame product, informed the team he plans to retire on Tuesday, and an official announcement will likely come today. Earl's departure drops the Bears' roster to 79 players, giving them one open slot. Although cornerbacks Charles Tillman will be placed on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) on Friday, it's the active PUP list teams can use in training camp. That will not create an additional roster spot.

Instead of bringing in an additional defensive back (the Bears have eight cornerbacks not counting Tillman and six safeties without Earl), the Bears could sign McGee. He believes the Bears are going to, at least at some point in the very near future.

"Nothing is official until I sign next month,'' McGee wrote on his blog. "But they are offering me a one-year contract.''

Two days before players will report to training camp veteran safety Glenn Earl has informed the Bears of his intention to retire from the NFL.

Earl considered his future over the course of the past week before making it official Tuesday.

"He's decided to hang it up," Earl's agent Craig Domann said. "He's been dealing with some injuries since he came out of Notre Dame. I think he felt like it was time to move on."

Earl's most recent major injury came in 2006 2007 during preseason when Bears running back Cedric Benson ran him over in a game at Houston. Earl suffered a torn Lisfranc ligament.

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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.

We've come down from our draft weekend buzz. Time to take a look in the mailbag and see what we have. With rookie minicamp starting Friday at Halas Hall, we will get to our next mailbag on Monday. Get your questions in between now and the end of the weekend. Here we go.

Q: Would the Bears have drafted Ohio safety Michael Mitchell at No. 49 if the Raiders hadn't nabbed him at No. 47 and taken all kinds of heat for doing so? I am perplexed by the Bears' inability to address the free safety position in the draft, despite it being their No. 2 need. I have read the quote from Mitchell on Raiders.com, that the Bears called him and told him "to stay by the phone.'' However, the Bears seem to deny this. On the Bears' Web site, Larry Mayer was asked a question about this very subject and whether or not the Bears would have selected Mitchell at No. 49:

"Ohio safety Michael Mitchell was on the Bears' "hot list" as one of nearly 125 players they were going to consider selecting in the draft. But I can tell you with 100 percent accuracy that there's no way they would have chosen him as early as the second round."
I assume that Mitchell has no reason to fabricate the story about the Bears telephone call, and I know that the Bears would never (ever) lie about a player.  Do teams advise players that they are going to draft them at a certain spot on draft day if they don't intend to do so? Who's telling the truth here?   P.S.  Since all of the Jay Cutler jerseys are now gone, where can I be the first to get a Josh Bullocks jersey?

Chuck D., Oak Brook

A: That might have to be a custom order on the Bullocks jersey. As far as the great Mitchell debate, I don't think it's a matter of one side lying and the other side telling the truth, let me tell you that to start with. The Bears liked Mitchell an awful lot. They were one of a few teams that really had him on their radar. Secondary coach Jon Hoke went to visit with him on campus and that went really well. The Bears then brought Mitchell in for a visit and physical. He met with coach Lovie Smith for about 45 minutes. It was a good visit. The phone call you're referring to was a call that Bears Midwest scout Jeff Shiver placed to Mitchell. As it was explained to me, Shiver told him to stay by the phone. He didn't say stay by the phone because we're going to draft you today. The Bears thought they were going to get Mitchell, but not on Sunday.

Need No. 2--Free safety

Players on roster

FS Josh Bullocks (signed through 2009)
S Craig Steltz (2011)
S Glenn Earl (2009)
S/CB Danieal Manning (2009)
S/CB Zack Bowman (2011)

Need

The Bears thought they were selecting an athletic safety with the skills to man the position for some time when they used their first pick in 2006 on Manning. He's started 28 games at the position and that has been enough for them to determine he's not a fit for them there. The most athletic member of the secondary gets caught out of position too often and part of the problem has its roots in the coaching staff's desire to move him all over the defensive backfield. The Bears are content now leaving him at nickel cornerback where he started last year and excelled after coach Lovie Smith took over the position. Smith is adding that position to his growing list of job titles and that is probably a good thing. It's too bad because Manning has proven to be durable and that is one trait the team has not been able to find at safety. Bullocks figures to be the man for the job right now. A former second-round pick, he had a nice rookie season in New Orleans but from there the progress stalled. The hope is that new surroundings will make a difference for him, and he looked good in minicamp, but the easiest way to judge a team's faith in a player is by his contract. Bullocks has a modest one-year deal.

Need No. 7--Strong safety

Players on roster

SS Kevin Payne (signed through 2010)
S Craig Steltz (2011)
S Glenn Earl (2009)

Need

Make no mistake about it, this is a big season for Payne. Entering the third year of his contract, he has the opportunity to play so well that the Bears will be motivated to talk extension with him at this time next year. If he doesn't play well, the Bears could be exploring new options come 2010. Payne played well at strong safety last season, which is where he started the year before a change was made to benefit departed veteran Mike Brown. Payne had double-digit tackles, including a season-high 15 on Oct. 19 vs. Minnesota--in six of the first 10 games before the move. Payne was out of position at free safety and the idea that the positions are interchangeable is a stretch. There are some durability concerns with him. He missed most of his rookie season with a broken arm that required surgery. He had shoulder surgery after this past season.

Full day of football news coming out of the owners meetings. The Bears got what they were looking for in a third-round compensatory pick for losing Bernard Berrian. Now, if they can make sure that third-round pick isn't Mike Okwo or Roosevelt Williams, maybe they will be OK. Off to the questions.

Q: It's been reported that the New York Jets are one of the 10 or so teams that have inquired about Jay Cutler's services. Wouldn't general manager Jerry Angelo earn some goodwill with a fan base that has become rather weary of his leadership by leaking the same news, that the Bears are going to be in the hunt for the quarterback if Denver decides to cut its unbelievable losses and trade the Pro Bowl quarterback?

Rafael S., Chicago

A: Sure, Angelo might make the fans happy for a day. Maybe a week. But would it matter if the Bears didn't land Cutler? I bet the Bears might have wanted to draft Ryan Clady last season too. He wasn't available when they picked at No. 14. Would knowing that make you feel better?

The Bears will sign veteran safety Glenn Earl to a one-year contract, a league source said.

The Naperville North and Notre Dame product was invited to participate in the three-day minicamp this week on a tryout basis and showed enough to stick around.

On the same day new safety Josh Bullocks got his hands on a couple of passes, the Bears looked to add some more depth to the secondary.

The club gave safety Glenn Earl a physical after the conclusion of minicamp Thursday afternoon. The Naperville North and Notre Dame product could sign a contract today. Earl was one of five players participating in the three-day minicamp on a tryout basis.

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The Bears signed Josh Bullocks to a one-year contract last week, but they remain shorthanded at safety and are bringing in help for minicamp.

Veteran safeties Glenn Earl and Curome Cox and linebacker Tim McGarigle will participate in the three-day minicamp on a tryout basis, multiple league sources said.

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