Veteran Minicamp Preview: Defense

The Chicago Bears have problems to solve on the defensive side of the ball at veteran minicamp this weekend, like who is to line up across from Julius Peppers and the state of both safety positions.

Where and with whom will Peppers line up at D-end?
Free-agent acquisition Julius Peppers has hammered home repeatedly that he doesn't care which side he lines up on, going so far as to say he hopes to do some in-game flip-flopping based on matchups, which isn't the way coach Lovie Smith has managed his D-ends in the past. The two-time All-Pro is obviously going to be an upgrade over either Alex Brown on the right or Adewale Ogunleye on the left, and motivation shouldn't be a problem even though he just got a $90-plus million dollar contract in March – he played 2009 on a franchise-tag guarantee of $16.7 million and made his fifth Pro Bowl. Because Smith previously hasn't moved his starting pass rushers around very much, it wouldn't be surprising to see Peppers getting reps at one spot and one spot only this weekend at Halas Hall.

As far as who will line up opposite Peppers, Israel Idonije and Mark Anderson are both candidates to start, plus it will be time to see if sophomores Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton are indeed destined for inside-only duty.

Are the injury issues behind Harris once and for all?
Team captain Brian Urlacher has been very vocal of late, including a tabloid-friendly spat with Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, and one of his recent comments proclaimed that Tommie Harris has wanted to practice more than he has the last few years – it's the coaching staff continually making him rest so often in hopes of keeping him fresh on game day. The results have been mixed at best, as Harris occasionally shows flashes of his Pro Bowl form but still tends to disappear for significant stretches way too often. With the Bears all but committed to playing Idonije at D-end exclusively in 2010, that means there is nobody on the depth chart behind Harris proven at three-technique defensive tackle, which is the most crucial position in Smith's Cover 2.

Should Harris again be taking more reps from the sideline than he is in the trenches during minicamp, that would be a bad sign and further evidence to suggest his knee and hamstring injuries are somewhat permanent.

Will we see legitimate competition on the strong side?
Although Pisa Tinoisamoa only played parts of two games last season because of a pair of knee injuries, the veteran deserves a lot of credit for coming to Chicago as humble as possible – his body of work in St. Louis implied he'd be a starter right away – and vaulted his way up from the bottom of the depth chart. Tinoisamoa is back on another relatively inexpensive one-year deal and again hasn't been promised a thing, meaning he will supposedly have to beat out Nick Roach and Hunter Hillenmeyer, as he did a year ago. What remains to be seen is if either Roach or Hillenmeyer has a real shot to win the job, or if it's all lip service and Tinoisamoa is the third linebacking Musketeer behind Urlacher and Lance Briggs already.

LB Nick Roach
Getty Images: Jonathan Daniel

While Roach deserves a fair shake after getting a $1.64 million tender offer this offseason, Hillenmeyer's best role is as a veteran backup.

Who will emerge as the 12th starter at nickel back?
Not only does Smith always say three technique is the cog bearing the most weight in his Cover 2's wheel, but the nickel back is essentially a 12th starter since he's on the field almost as much as the strong-side linebacker – one spot replaces the other based on the enemy offense's personnel. Because the team made no effort to sign Danieal Manning to a long-term deal, doing nothing more than offering an original-round tender of $1.176 million, it's fair to infer he is far from a lock to be the primary nickel back in 2010. His opportunity to be a starting safety in Chicago appears to be over, as the front office's free-agency and draft activity clearly stated.

Manning better plan on heavy competition from both Corey Graham and newcomer Tim Jennings throughout minicamp, and Graham in particular since Jennings has been seeing more time at corner in voluntary workouts.

Is safety any less of a concern than a season ago?
Smith was surprisingly open and honest about how poorly his safeties played in 2009 and that the Bears need to "invest" at both the strong and free positions, and general manager Jerry Angelo was apparently listening. Not only did he select Major Wright of Florida with his top pick in the NFL Draft (Round 3, 75th overall), but just four days later he traded for former locker-room favorite Chris Harris to bring him back to the Windy City. Wright and Harris are the leading candidates to start Week 1 at free and strong safety, respectively, although Al Afalava and Craig Steltz will no doubt be heard from before it's all said and done.

If Afalava – a sixth rounder last year that didn't even get to attend OTAs because he came from a Pac 10 school – can earn a starting job, there is every reason to assume Wright can do the same provided he learns the defense quickly.

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John Crist is the Publisher of, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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