Special teams may shape Bears secondary

With Zack Bowman and Sherrick McManis critical special teams contributors, Chicago's coaching staff may need to get creative with the club's cornerback rotation this season.

When former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice decided a pure fullback wasn't necessary in his offense, replaced by what he referred to as an F-back, the team was forced to trade Tyler Clutts to the Houston Texans shortly before the start of last season. In return, Chicago received Sherrick McManis, a cornerback by trade but whose real value is on special teams.

And McManis didn't disappoint, finishing 2012 tied for third on the team with 10 special teams tackles. He also added a blocked punt, which Corey Wootton returned for a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in Week 9.

The team made a similar move in Week 7, signing Zack Bowman in free agency. Despite playing just 11 games last year, Bowman finished second on the tem with 11 special teams tackles and a fumble recovery.

This offseason, Bowman has been used as the club's No. 3 cornerback out wide, serving as the main backup behind starters Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Kelvin Hayden was re-signed this offseason to again man the nickelback position, which brings the cornerback count to five. The team rostered six corners last year but that doesn't mean they will in 2013. If a fifth defensive end or defensive tackle is needed, or a seventh linebacker, the team may choose to keep just five corners on the roster.

Currently, Isaiah Frey has been working as the second-team nickelback. Frey, last year's sixth-round selection, spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad. Yet he looked much improved during recent OTAs and minicamp. Still, he's an inexperienced player just one season removed from the practice squad. It's seriously doubtful the coaching staff would feel comfortable tossing in Frey against the Green Bay Packers if Hayden goes down with injury.

Chicago's coaching staff gave a glimpse into one strategy they are considering, which is using Jennings as the backup slot corner. In addition to his starting duties, Jennings was used on a number of snaps at nickel the past few months, with the first second and third teams. The fact he's jumping between teams is a strong indication as to how he might be used this year.

If Jennings, whose body type (5-8, 185) and quickness are tailor made for the slot, shows well at nickel, it could be bad news for Frey, despite his progression as a defender. Bowman and McManis are too valuable on special team to cut, so right now, Frey could be on the chopping block.

Things are made even harder for Frey due to the emergence, again, of Bowman as a viable option on defense. The new defensive staff likes Bowman's size (6-1, 193) on the outside. He's had chances in Chicago before but failed to seize his opportunities. This is likely his last shot to earn playing time as an NFL cornerback and so far, he's made the most of it, working extensively with both the first and second teams this offseason.

Yet with training camp still more than three weeks away, nothing is set in stone. Frey will be given every opportunity in Bourbonnais to earn a roster spot. It will be his to win or lose, as his only competition will be a group of corners with zero NFL experience. If he continues to show improvement in camp, he can earn a spot on the final 53-man roster and, down the line, may eventually develop into a regular contributor. But he'll throw that all away if he reverts back to the deer-in-the-headlights form he showcased in last year's training camp.

It's a situation well worth monitoring over the next few months, as the decision to keep either five or six cornerbacks will have a big impact on how the rest of the Bears' roster is shaped.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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