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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.


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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.''

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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The Bears launched into their latest effort to create a free safety on Wednesday when Corey Graham was officially moved to the position.

New defensive backs coach Jon Hoke pointed out that Graham has some history to draw on in making the switch from cornerback. He played free safety as a senior in high school and then spent two games there during his career at New Hampshire. That's only a little more history than say Chris Chandler's experience as a Bears quarterback in the earlier portions of this decade. Hey, he did hit Dez White for that 76-yard bomb of a touchdown in the 2002 game at Carolina.

"I was pretty good at it, to be honest,'' Graham said, recalling the good ol' days. "So I've just got to get back used to it. I think the more reps I get, the better I'll get at it.''

Graham seems like a logical fit when you consider he's got the range and coverage skills the Bears have lacked at free safety for some time. That won't be an issue and the club essentially operated with two strong safeties last season using the departed Mike Brown and Kevin Payne.

Then we came on something else that might have caught the Bears' attention when considering this switch--Graham was far and away the most involved defensive player when it came to plays made per snap on the field. Sure, there was reason to have concern with some of his work filling in for Nathan Vasher at right cornerback last season, but Graham always seemed to be involved. These numbers support that. Take a look at the club's top six leading tacklers from 2008:

WLB Lance Briggs--136 tackles, 1,108 snaps


SS/FS Kevin Payne--129 tackles, 1,101 snaps

MLB Brian Urlacher--107 tackles, 1,110 snaps

FS/SS Mike Brown--101 tackles, 924 snaps

CB Corey Graham--93 tackles, 714 snaps

CB Charles Tillman--91 tackles, 948 snaps

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.

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Q: Wide receiver is the Bears' biggest need in the draft but count me among the crowd that is concerned they will be looking at the 8th or 9th wide receiver by the time their pick comes up. If that is the case, why draft a receiver that not only might not make much impact this season, but might not be anything down the road? Really what I want to know is what else Jerry Angelo could look at if he doesn't take a receiver?

Evan E., Chicago

A: You make a valid point and I believe it's the same thing the Bears have been mulling over for a couple weeks now. Do they pick a receiver to fill a glaring need for depth just to have one, or do they consider a player with a far better grade at a different position? It is all going to depend on how the draft board falls. I think it is safe to say that if they don't pull the trigger on a receiver that they will most assuredly being going with defense.

Maybe you wonder why Angelo would not consider an offensive lineman. Well, he laid out a pretty good reason earlier this week. The Bears already have eight veteran offensive linemen they will carry. Adding a ninth will force them to trim from elsewhere on the 53-man roster. Angelo feels better about his line than he has in some time. They believe line coach Harry Hiestand does a terrific job, particularly after last season, and they will not look at the line early in the draft. Quarterback, running back and tight end are not need areas, so we turn to the defense.

The Bears are set at linebacker for this season and the history of Angelo and coach Lovie Smith is for them to draft defensive linemen and defensive backs in quantity.

At defensive end, which is where the Bears have a need with three players heading into the final year of their contract, I don't know if there is a player who will fit their scheme that will be on the board. Northern Illinois' Larry English could slide into the second round, but won't go that far and he doesn't match what the Bears are seeking. There are a couple of nice players at the top of the list but they will be gone.

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Cornerback or free safety?

That is the question teams have to kick around when they consider Sherrod Martin. Versatility is a good thing to have and the Troy defensive back is an intriguing prospect for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his 6-1, 198-pound frame and the 4.38-second time he turned in for the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Consider Martin the latest in a line of productive NFL players that are coming out of the Alabama program. DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora and Leodis McKelvin have gotten the attention of scouts in recent years and now the Sun Belt school is a can't-miss stop.

"It's a big help,'' Martin said of the players who came before him. "But you have to be able to play the game. It just shows that those guys are competitive players and real talented and Troy is producing guys who can play in the NFL. It's on the map.''

The Bears certainly didn't miss Martin. As we reported here, the Bears put Martin through a private workout on campus April 3. It was one of four workouts Martin has had. He's also taken two official visits to AFC teams, and he's expected to be selected in the second or third rounds. New secondary coach Jon Hoke put Martin through the workout and then they went to the classroom where they did some X's and O's work on the board before watching film and talking about the difference in schemes.

Need No. 5--Cornerback

Players on roster

CB Charles Tillman (signed through 2013)
CB Nathan Vasher (2012)
CB Corey Graham (2010)
CB Trumaine McBride (2010)
CB Marcus Hamilton (2009)
CB Rudy Burgess (2010)
CB Danieal Manning (2009)
CB Zack Bowman (2011)

Need

If things go the way the Bears are hoping with new secondary coach Jon Hoke, this will be a position of strength with the players already on the depth chart. Tillman is still recovering from shoulder surgery in January and his health must be watched. The belief is he will be fine. He's always been such a rugged addition to the run defense that you wonder if his second shoulder surgery as a pro will affect the way he plays. Vasher went into Lovie Smith's doghouse last season but he was running with the starters in minicamp. That was because Tillman and McBride were both out rehabilitating injuries. Vasher is intent on fighting his way back into a starting role and he looked to be in good position. It looks like he'll get more of an opportunity than last year's cast off in the secondary, Ricky Manning Jr., and Vasher has earned that right.

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We covered a couple options for the Bears at safety earlier in the week when we touched on Alabama's Rashad Johnson and Ohio's Mike Mitchell.

In our quest to uncover some more possibilities for the Bears, we jumped on a teleconference this afternoon with Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly. He identified Oregon's Patrick Chung as someone who will merit ``strong consideration'' if he's on the board when the team goes on the clock with the 49th pick. Chung is considered one of the top three or four safeties in the draft and while the Bears have shown no outward interest in him, that doesn't mean a whole lot. West Coast scout Marty Barrett has seen plenty of Chung's career with the Ducks over the last four seasons when he made 51 consecutive starts. The question that we raise most when it comes to Chung is whether or not he has the range to play free safety.

``One that will be interesting for the Bears is a guy like Glover Quin (pictured above) from New Mexico,'' Nawrocki said in answer to our question. ``He played cornerback there but he is a big, physical player and he could be converted to safety. I think he'll definitely get some looks.''

One of the players we first identified here as someone the Bears were interested in may have looked like an off-the-radar candidate at the time.

Ohio University safety Mike Mitchell is very much on the radar now.

He had a private workout for two teams at his high school in Fort Thomas, Ky., on Monday. He travels to Cincinnati today for a visit with the Bengals and from there he will go to Cleveland where he will meet with the Browns. Mitchell then heads to Oakland on Thursday and will wrap up the week in Green Bay on Friday. That's a busy week to add to the three official visits he's already had to this point.

``I didn't want to smell like old cologne, so I had to get two more suits to add to the rotation,'' joked Mitchell about his weekend shopping expedition.

Suddenly, Mitchell has gone from a possible late-round selection to a guy who could come off the board in the middle rounds. The Bears went in for a visit with him last month and are just one of the teams with genuine interest in him.

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