Will Lance Briggs be traded, and if so, who will replace him alongside Brian Urlacher? Can Rex Grossman put 'Bad Rex' to bed once and for all and simply be 'Good Rex' from start to finish? Is Tank Johnson capable of resurrecting his career after an offseason spent in jail? Will Cedric Benson finally live up to expectations with Thomas Jones no longer in front of him? Can Tommie Harris return to form after last season's torn hamstring?
And if that's not enough, here's another question that must be addressed: What's the secondary going to look like come Week 1?
On opening day last year, Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher started at cornerback with Mike Brown at strong safety and Chris Harris at free safety. But just two games into the regular season, head coach Lovie Smith benched Harris in favor of rookie Danieal Manning. A second-rounder out of tiny Abilene Christian, Manning showed very early that his superior speed and athleticism made him a natural fit in Smith's version of the Cover 2 defense.
Manning looked to be a better free safety than Harris even in training camp, but Smith needed to see more live action before deciding to pull the trigger.
"We've liked Danieal all along, of course," Smith said on Sep. 20, the day he made the switch. "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."
Manning finished his freshman NFL campaign with 70 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, and 7 passes defensed. Pretty solid totals, but he seemed to tire the second half of the season and gave up some big plays in the passing game. Losing Brown, the captain of the secondary, in Week 6 to a season-ending injury certainly didn't help his development.
Coming into 2007, the safety position is perhaps the biggest unknown for the Bears. Brown has missed significant action each of the last three years due to lower-leg problems, and backups Todd Johnson and Cameron Worrell both left via free agency. Harris whiffs on way too many tackles and is not a good player in space, and Brandon McGowan, Tyler Everett, and Nick Turnbull are all inexperienced.
GM Jerry Angelo made some progress by trading a second-day draft pick to Washington for Adam Archuleta on Mar. 20, but his arrival makes the depth chart equally cloudy.
Smith announced at Fan Convention that Brown would retain his starting job, although he refused to comment whether it will be at free or strong safety. Archuleta is a classic strong safety and most effective playing near the line of scrimmage, while Brown started his career at free before ultimately moving to strong. Brown and Archuleta are two of Smith's favorite all-time players, but what would then become of Manning?
"We know one thing right now," defensive coordinator Bob Babich said at Fan Convention. "That Mike Brown will be part of that combination. He's definitely going to be a starter."
So is a move to cornerback in Manning's future?
The Bears are in great shape at corner next season just as they were in 2006. Tillman and Vasher are the starters and one of the better pairs in the league, and Ricky Manning Jr. excelled at nickelback his first year in Chicago. Danieal Manning might be the fastest player on the Bears roster and can run with any wide receiver, but at best he would be the fourth corner on a defense that does not currently employ a dime package.
That being said, a switch to corner might be in the best interest of the team for the long-term. Tillman and Vasher are free agents after the 2007 season, and both of them will be highly coveted players if allowed to hit the open market. In all likelihood, the organization will only be able to afford one of them and needs to groom a replacement at some point.
Not too long ago, Manning was the starting free safety on Super Bowl Sunday. Just a short time later, he appears to be the odd man out in the secondary. Whether he'll be a safety or a corner next season remains to be seen, but it looks like he'll be a reserve either way.
Although recent history would suggest that he's just another Brown injury away from becoming a starter once again.
|John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and Editor in Chief of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.|