Draft Decisions: Struggles at Safety

The Chicago Bears have many needs heading into the 2009 NFL Draft, with safety being at the head of the list on the defensive side of the ball. Free safety in particular, since Mike Brown is no longer in the mix after all those leg injuries. Bear Report breaks down what to expect this weekend.

Projected Starters: Now that Josh Bullocks has been signed during the offseason to play free safety, Kevin Payne can move back to his natural home at strong safety. This past season, Payne was forced to line up out of position at free safety because former Pro Bowler Mike Brown wasn't very effective unless he was down in the box at strong safety. Bullocks is more of a center fielder-type, while Payne likes to lay the lumber around the line of scrimmage.

Expected Reserves: A pair of second-year pros, fourth-round draft pick Craig Steltz and fifth-rounder Zack Bowman, are the immediate backups at strong safety and free safety, respectively. Steltz was in line to start at free safety before Bullocks was added to the mix, but he's a better fit at strong safety anyway because he doesn't have elite speed. While Bowman came into the league as a cornerback, he was a top safety in junior college and brings a lot of range to the secondary.

Round 2 Discussion: There isn't one safety in this year's draft that appears worthy of a first-round grade, so taking one off the board in Round 2 means you're getting one of the best available. The Bears spent some time with Louis Delmas of Western Michigan at the Senior Bowl, although he may out of the picture since the club didn't attend his Pro Day. Rashad Johnson of Alabama has been generating a lot of buzz lately, probably because he reminds many of a young Brown.

Day 2 Possibilities: Two Clemson prospects are on the radar, with Chris Clemons looking like a strong safety and Mike Hamlin looking like a free safety. Nic Harris of Oklahoma got the attention of Chicago officials at the Senior Bowl, but he's a tweener and may have been scouted to play outside linebacker. The only other name to pop up has been Oregon State's Al Afalava, who appears to be nothing more than a seventh-rounder or possible undrafted free agent acquisition.

Plan of Attack: If there is a run on receivers before GM Jerry Angelo is on the clock in Round 2, Johnson could be the selection at No. 49 overall. But since the Bears are in more desperate need of a pass catcher than a center fielder, all signs point to Oklahoma's Juaquin Iglesias or Georgia's Mohamed Massaquoi as opposed to Johnson. As far as the two Tigers are concerned, Clemons makes more sense than Hamlin because free safety is more up in the air right now than strong safety.

Clemons had 94 tackles or more in three straight seasons. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

JC's Take: The Monsters of the Midway have been shredded through the air the last two seasons, and while the pass rush deserves its share of the blame, inconsistency at both safety positions simply can't be ignored.

Payne should be a much better player in 2009 since he was a bad fit playing out in space as a free safety, plus Bullocks still has a lot of unrealized potential and might be just fine patrolling the last line of defense. Although the depth chart is incredibly inexperienced right now, especially since Brown was practically another coach and always knew what all 11 players were supposed to do on every call. And not only are the starters and backups somewhat green at this point, but the Bears always seem to have an injury or two at safety and end up having to move people around more than anyone would like.

While Johnson might be a quality addition and could compete for a starting job right away, Chicago's inadequate receiving corps probably means Hamlin or Afalava are more likely selections.

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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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