Supplanting second-year man Chris Harris in the starting lineup in Week 3, Manning racked up 70 tackles (53 solo), 2 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, and 7 passes defensed in 2006. His first career INT came against future Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre in Week 1, and his 8 tackles in Super Bowl XLI was good enough for fourth-best on the team. At just 24 years old, the arrow appeared to be pointing up for the former second-rounder out of Division II Abilene Christian.
However, both GM Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith gave Manning a wake-up call this offseason.
Back on Mar. 20, Angelo traded a sixth-round draft choice to Washington for strong safety Adam Archuleta. One of Smith's favorite players back when he was the defensive coordinator in St. Louis, Smith pushed hard to sign Archuleta in free agency last year before the Redskins inked him to the richest deal in NFL history for a safety. Although he quickly fell out of favor in our nation's capital and was relegated to special teams duty down the stretch, Smith is confident that his former pupil will be effective once again.
Archuleta has always looked up to Smith and appreciates the way he goes about his business.
"He was one of my first mentors in the NFL, and I experienced a lot of success," Archuleta said shortly after the trade. "I like the way he handles his players. He commands a lot of respect, and he gives you the sense that he really believes in you and he really cares about your success. And it's not superficial."
With Archuleta now in the fold, all eyes turned to what the Bears would do about Mike Brown. One of the captains of the defense and a respected leader in the locker room, Brown has missed significant time each of the last three seasons due to lower-leg ailments. Now 29 years old and possessing a dubious injury history, perhaps he could be cut to make room for Archuleta as the starter at strong safety alongside Manning.
Defensive coordinator Bob Babich put that thought to rest in a hurry at Fan Convention back on Mar. 30.
"We know one thing right now," Babich said. "That Mike Brown will be a part of that combination. He's definitely going to be a starter."
Sure sounds like the Bears are planning to move Brown from strong safety back to his original spot at free safety and pair him with Archuleta. Brown certainly has the physical nature necessary to survive at strong, but his instincts and leadership make him a better fit at free. Archuleta is a punishing player near the line of scrimmage from the strong position, but he struggled mightily in Washington a year ago because he does not have the cover skills to handle wide receivers in the secondary.
Does that mean Manning will go from a starter on a Super Bowl team as a rookie to a reserve as a second-year player? Or does the coaching staff have something else in mind?
The big announcement this week revolved around Devin Hester being moved from defense to offense beginning with this weekend's mini camp at Halas Hall. Manning will likely be affected by this decision's trickle-down effect. Hester's transition will leave the Bears a little thin at cornerback, so Manning might be making a positional switch himself.
Possibly the fastest Bear in terms of straight-ahead speed, Manning definitely has the tools necessary to play corner. Smith's Cover 2 scheme is better suited for bigger CBs because they are asked to contribute in run support and rarely have to gallop stride for stride with wideouts downfield. At 5'11" and 196 pounds, he fits the mold Smith favors.
The Monsters of the Midway are in good shape already at cornerback in 2007, but 2008 and beyond is a different story.
Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher will be the starters once again and are one of the better tandems in football. That being said, both of them are free agents after this season. Ricky Manning Jr. thrived in the nickel package his first year in Chicago, although he was exposed to some degree when starting after first Vasher and then Tillman were sidelined with minor injuries.
Further down the depth chart, Dante Wesley did not see much action on defense last year after signing as a free agent from Carolina. Angelo drafted two more corners last month – Corey Graham of New Hampshire in Round 5 and Trumaine McBride of Mississippi in Round 7 – but neither is expected to contribute much initially. Manning could step in right away on the second unit while also subbing at safety should he be needed.
If this was baseball, we might be talking about him as a valuable utility man like Rob Mackowiak of the White Sox or Ryan Theriot of the Cubs.
No matter what happens, Smith has shown that he will do whatever it takes to get his best players on the field. Manning may not be atop the depth chart at safety these days, but he is still a talented football player and will see plenty of snaps on this defense. And if Brown finds yet another way to get hurt, Manning will be the first one called to take over at free safety.
But thankfully, unlike Mackowiak or Theriot, he won't be asked to lay down a bunt.
|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.|