Harris Out, Manning In at Free Safety

Not many people expected Chris Harris, a 2005 6th round pick, to emerge as the starter at free safety last season. And although he did a good job fitting into the defense and doing what he was asked to do, some experts felt he lacked the speed and coverage skills to be a difference-maker at the position. Rookie Danieal Manning, on the other hand, appears to be up to the task.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith cruised into the media room to talk to reporters after practice like he does every Wednesday. He elaborated on a slimmed down injury report - only Israel Idonije and Cameron Worrell are listed, both questionable - before looking forward to some of the aspects that have piqued his interest for this Sunday's NFC North showdown at Minnesota. There was one nugget he tried to slide past the members of the press in his opening statement, but the news was too big to ignore.

"Football team-wise, we've made a change at the free safety position," Smith said. "Danieal Manning will start at free safety this week instead of Chris Harris. And beyond that, it's just kind of business as usual for us."

This may qualify as "business as usual" to the Chief Bear, but considering the team has made a change to the starting lineup of arguably the best defense in the NFL, this quickly became the story of the day.

Harris was a surprise starter last season after being selected in the 6th round of the 2005 NFL Draft out of Louisiana-Monroe, and although he played admirably in the cover-two system, he has been criticized for a lack of speed and ball skills that are a prerequisite for playing free safety. Conversely, Manning showed those skills right away in mini camp and training camp, so his elevation to starting status should not be viewed as a huge surprise. Harris replaced Mike Green as the starter very quickly last season, so a precedent had been established.

"We base everything on performance," Smith said. "We've been evaluating our players for a long time, and we've seen Danieal make some good plays ... We think he gives us the best chance to win."

When asked about whether Manning was given the starting nod based on what he has the potential of doing or what he has done already, Smith offered a mixed answer.

"I think it will be all of the above," he said. "You have to have some natural ability, which he has. But you have to get out there and be able to perform at a certain level, too. And again, most of it is based on performance and how guys play in a game situation. We've liked Danieal all along, of course. We drafted him high (and) thought he had a lot of talent. But we need to see it in a football game, and we've had a chance to see him for a couple of football games now."

It's rare that a safety has good cover skills and the ability to be a big hitter in run support, but Smith sees both of those qualities in the youngster out of Division II Abilene Christian.

"He's been a good tackler for us," he said. "He has a lot of range. We've talked about him having corner skills. So a lot of those things we like, but again, we know that he's inexperienced. He's only played a couple games, but I believe in putting the best players on the football field that you think at the time, and that's where we are right now."

Smith wouldn't specify whether this change is a product of Harris not playing up to standards or Manning exceeding expectations, but he stands by his belief that he's only acting in the best interest of the football team.

"We like Danieal right now. I think Chris is what Chris has been. We just think Danieal gives us the best opportunity to win right now. It's nothing against Chris. We're not praising Danieal to be a superstar player. We think he is our best player at that position right now."

Just looking at the numbers, Manning has made an immediate impact in the short time he has been in a Bears uniform. Through two games - both of which he came off the bench - he has been in on three tackles, broken up three passes, and picked off Brett Favre in Week 1 for his first career interception. Although Harris has racked up nine tackles as the starter, he defensed only eight passes all last season and is yet to record one so far in 2006.

Smith employs a system that is geared toward speed and athleticism, and with the move he has just made, his defense just stepped it up a notch in both areas.


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