Payne Addition Signals Change

With the return of Mike Brown from injury and the addition of Adam Archuleta via trade, the Bears are in a transition phase at safety. It's been speculated that Brown could move back to free safety and last year's starter there, Danieal Manning, might switch over to cornerback. Drafting Kevin Payne, a pure strong safety out of Louisiana-Monroe, makes that scenario much more likely.

To say the least, the Chicago Bears are in a state of flux right now at both safety positions.

At the beginning of last season, Mike Brown was the starter at strong safety while Chris Harris got the nod at free safety. Harris was replaced in Week 3 by rookie Danieal Manning, but then Brown went down with another lower-leg injury in Week 6 and was forced to sit on IR. Todd Johnson took over before battling a few injuries of his own, so Harris was called upon again although this time at strong safety.

During the offseason, GM Jerry Angelo surrendered a sixth-round draft pick to bring in Adam Archuleta from Washington, a player both he and head coach Lovie Smith coveted in free agency the year before. A colossal bust for the Redskins after signing the richest contract in history at his position, he was a playmaker for Smith back when he was the defensive coordinator in St. Louis. Although there has been some talk that Archuleta's arrival would be the catalyst for Brown's departure, the organization has said repeatedly that Brown will be back in 2007 in the starting lineup.

New defensive coordinator Bob Babich reiterated that sentiment on Mar. 30 at the annual Fan Convention.

"We know one thing right now," Babich said, "that Mike Brown will be part of that combination. He's definitely going to be a starter. As we go through the offseason and into training camp, we'll put the best combination together. It's a good situation for us. We added some depth to the safety position, and Mike gives us flexibility because he's played both positions."

However, neither Babich nor Smith has said just where Brown will start.

Since Archuleta is a classic strong safety and much more effective near the line of scrimmage as opposed to playing in space, it seems plausible that Brown will be moved back to free safety. After all, he did begin his career there and had a ton of success before battling all these injuries the past few seasons. A starting duo of Brown and Archuleta makes a lot of sense since Smith is a big fan of both players and trusts their ability within his Cover 2 scheme.

Although most of this talk has simply been widespread speculation by the media, the drafting of Kevin Payne in the fifth round two Sundays ago could be the push that gets this ball rolling.

A pretty successful tailback for two seasons at Louisiana-Monroe, Payne was moved to strong safety his junior year. Coincidentally, that move occurred when Harris, a fellow Warhawk, graduated and moved on to the NFL. Payne picked up the nuances of the position quickly and was good enough to earn an invitation to the Senior Bowl.

Although his coverage skills are still raw at this point, he is a big hitter and shows good football instincts. Known as a tough guy and an extremely hard worker, Payne looks to be a good fit in a two-deep system like the Bears employ. A versatile athlete throughout his collegiate career, he even punted last season and averaged 40.6 yards per attempt.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Angelo was impressed by Payne at the Senior Bowl and had him on his radar shortly thereafter.

"We don't really have anyone like him," said Angelo after Day 2 of the draft. "And Lovie and the staff really liked him and what they saw and wanted to get a bigger player at that position."

So assuming Brown does make the transition back to his natural position at free safety, what then becomes of Manning?

A second-rounder out of tiny Abilene Christian in 2006, Manning quickly proved that he was a superior athlete to Harris and played pretty well the first half of the season. But down the stretch, he started to become mistake-prone and had some problems with his assignments in the secondary. As you might expect, Manning made increasingly more errors shortly after Brown, the captain of the secondary, hit the injured reserve list.

Believe it or not, Manning might be the fastest Bear on the entire roster, so a switch to cornerback seems like it could work. Smith prefers bigger corners on defense because they are asked to support the run and don't have to keep up with speedy receivers down the field that often. At 5'11" and 196 pounds, Manning fits that mold even better than former Pro-Bowler Nathan Vasher.

Vasher is a free agent after the 2007 season, as is his partner in crime Charles Tillman. It may be impossible to sign both of them for the long term, so the Bears need to start putting together a contingency plan should they lose one of them – or both – next offseason. Angelo picked up two more corners, Corey Graham of New Hampshire and Trumaine McBride of Mississippi, on Day 2 of this year's draft.

Payne could be the key to all of this – Brown's move back to free safety and Manning's switch to corner – being set in motion.

But does he ever secretly wish that he were still in the backfield taking handoffs?

"I'm a safety," Payne said at last weekend's mini camp. "I was born to play safety. I was just playing running back for that time. I guess I was in the wrong position."

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.

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