Four Safeties, Two Starting Jobs

We have a pretty good idea of what the Bears will look like on defense in 2007. Alex Brown has been demoted in favor of Mark Anderson at right end and Jamar Williams is the starter at weakside linebacker while Lance Briggs is MIA, but both of those moves were somewhat expected. The safety position, however, is still anyone's guess. So what did we learn at this past weekend's mini camp?

The Chicago Bears have four safeties that could start for most teams in the NFL, but only two of them can be atop the depth chart come opening day.

According to head coach Lovie Smith, "We're rolling all guys around right now ... We feel like we have about five safeties that can play. We'll let them all play with the ones and with the twos."

Smith is always a glass-half-full kind of guy and constantly praises every player on his roster, but the fact remains that he'll have to render a decision before too long as to who his starter will be at both free and strong safety.

No question about it, one of them will be Mike Brown.

Despite the fact that he has missed 28 games the last three regular seasons with various lower-leg injuries, Brown is still a defensive captain and the emotional epicenter of the locker room. Coming off his first Pro Bowl performance in 2005, he tore a foot ligament in Week 6 at Arizona and was forced to watch his teammates make their run to Super Bowl XLI while on injured reserve. After playing in all 64 games his first four seasons and starting 63 of them, critics have begun to wonder if his body is starting to break down and can no longer handle the weekly car wreck that is life in the NFL.

Brown disputes the notion that he's injury-prone and says last season's torn ligament had nothing to do with his previous ailments.

"I think people misunderstood what type of injury I had," Brown said after Saturday's mini camp practice at Halas Hall. "It had nothing to do with pulling a muscle or anything like that. It was I got caught in a pile and tore a ligament. So it had nothing to do with my body breaking down on me."

After some speculation that Brown's future in Chicago could be in jeopardy, the coaching staff has been adamant lately that he will be a starter at one of the safety positions in 2007 – the question is, "Where?"

The offseason addition of Adam Archuleta was the primary reason Brown was rumored to be expendable.

Smith coached Archuleta when he was the defensive coordinator in St. Louis and tried desperately to bring him to Chicago before last season. However, Washington offered him the richest contract in history for a safety and lured the former Ram to the District of Columbia. But he quickly fell out of favor with the Redskins and was traded to the Bears for only a sixth-round draft pick on Mar. 20.

Archuleta just wants a chance to be the player he used to be once again and doesn't care who lines up alongside him.

"I want to win," said Archuleta. "I'm willing to do what is necessary to win. I have a good sense of the game, and my speed is a plus. I think I have a strong work ethic, and I'm not afraid to put in the time to perfect my technique. I can work with any player the coaches place with me in the secondary. I can't tell you a preference of one guy over another to be with in the backfield. That will all develop in time."

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Archuleta is a classic strong safety and thrives playing near the line of scrimmage, fueling speculation that Brown – also a strong safety the last two campaigns – will be moved back to his original spot at free safety.

But Archuleta was running with the second team primarily at mini camp, so he will have to beat out returning starter Chris Harris first.

Harris moved from free safety to strong safety last year after the injuries to Brown and backup Todd Johnson. Initially a starter at free as a rookie two seasons ago, Harris is a more natural fit at strong because he is better playing in the box than he is in space down the field. It certainly helps having experience at both positions, but truth be told, he has never truly excelled at either in his pro career.

But Harris feels good about himself this season and isn't going to let anyone come in and unseat him.

"Mentally and physically," Harris said, "I am at my peak. So I'm not afraid that anybody is going to push me out of the lineup. That is the coach's decision, of course, but that's what I feel. Mike Brown is back. New guys came in through the draft. I think the ingredients are in place for a dominant secondary. I certainly plan to be a part of that effort."

It was initially believed that Archuleta was signed in order to make Brown's exit more palatable, but after some shuffling, perhaps Harris is the one on the cutting block.

Then what, pray tell, will become of Danieal Manning?

A second-rounder a year ago, Manning immediately proved to be a superior athlete than Harris and replaced him in the starting lineup at free safety in Week 3. And although he played well in the early going, he was hurt by Brown's absence in the second half of the season and saw his productivity dissipate down the stretch. Since he is maybe the fastest player on the roster and possesses very good cover skills as a safety, he lined up at cornerback quite a bit during mini camp and could be making a permanent switch before long.

Manning would prefer to stay at free safety but acknowledges that he has very little say in the matter.

"There's going to be a lot of competition in the secondary this year," said Manning. "I don't see myself changing positions, at least not at this point. I'm comfortable exactly where I am right now. But that's something I don't have much say over. It's all up to the coaches."

It may indeed be up to the coaches, but it's possible not even they know what's going to happen just yet.

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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