Comparing the North: Defensive backs

The Vikings are far from alone with some uncertainty in their secondary. The Bears and Lions both have multiple starting spots up in the air, and the Packers could see a switch at safety. Take a tour around the NFC North secondaries and see how they are shaping up as training camp approaches.


Starters - LCB Zack Bowman, RCB Charles Tillman, SS Danieal Manning, FS Chris Harris. Backups - CB Corey Graham, CB Tim Jennings, S Major Wright, S Al Afalava, S Craig Steltz, S Josh Bullocks, CB Joshua Moore, CB D.J. Moore.

The Bears have endured 40 lineup changes at the safety positions since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004, and they are eager to achieve some continuity. Afalava started 13 games last season as a rookie, including 10 at strong safety, but he'll have to win the job again this time around. He's a physical player but somewhat lacking in coverage. Manning started 10 games at free safety and has 38 starts since moving into the lineup as a rookie in 2006. But he was demoted to nickel back last year, although he should get first shot at strong safety this year. Steltz and Bullocks should be somewhere in the equation, but rookie Wright has a chance to leapfrog both of them. Cornerback depth is a bit shallow after Tillman and Bowman, who both have enough size to match up with bigger wide receivers and enough toughness to support the run defense. Graham has some starting experience and has played some nickel, but for now he's best in a backup role or as an additional defensive back in passing situations. The same can be said for free-agent pickup Jennings.


Starters - CB Chris Houston, CB Jonathan Wade, FS Louis Delmas, SS C.C. Brown. Backups - CB Dre' Bly, CB Amari Spievey, CB Eric King, CB Dante Wesley, CB Aaron Berry, CB Jack Williams, S Jonathan Hefney, S Ko Simpson, S Marvin White, S Marquand Manuel.

Just about everything is up for grabs in the Lions' secondary. And that's as it should be with a unit that was picked apart again by opponents last season and by the front office this past offseason. Delmas, a talented, young playmaker at free safety, is the only lock to be a starter. Houston, a three-year starter in Atlanta before getting traded this winter, likely is, too, though coach Jim Schwartz said Wade actually was the most consistent corner in offseason workouts. The return of Bly adds a veteran to the mix, but the coaching staff wants to see Spievey, the rookie third-round pick, assert himself in August. Along with King, one of those three figures to be the nickel back. Williams is a question mark coming back from major knee surgery. At safety, a handful of veterans are candidates to start alongside Delmas, but none has the complete package, and that could push the front office to make another move. Hefney's coverage skills gave him a lift in offseason workouts, but Brown could win the job in camp. Simpson, last year's starter before an injury, likely won't be 100 percent until the fall.


Starters — LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Al Harris, FS Nick Collins, SS Atari Bigby. Backups — CB Tramon Williams, CB Pat Lee, CB Brandon Underwood, CB Josh Bell, CB Jarrett Bush, CB Sam Shields, CB D.J. Clark; S Morgan Burnett, S Will Blackmon, S Derrick Martin, S Charlie Peprah, S Anthony Levine.

Harris is optimistic he will be ready for Week 1 of the season, but the Packers haven't ruled out placing him on PUP as the 35-year-old tries to bounce back from several torn ligaments in his left knee in November. Williams, an emerging young player, gives the team comfort should Harris need more time in his recovery. What's more, the leader of the defense, Woodson, is fine and dandy at age 33 on the heels of being named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Woodson flourished in his new roving position with career highs of nine interceptions, three touchdown returns and 81 tackles, along with a personal-best-tying four forced fumbles. Things are murky beyond Woodson, Harris and Williams, though the team is hopeful Lee and/or Underwood can contribute in a nickel or dime role — Lee is healthy again after missing the 2009 season with a knee injury. Who starts next to Collins, who earned a second straight trip to the Pro Bowl with six interceptions, is up in the air. Bigby, a restricted free agent, skipped all offseason workouts and just signed the team's qualifying offer. He will have a major battle on his hands to keep the starting job from going to Burnett, a third-round draft pick who exhibited his playmaking skills in the offseason. Blackmon was moved to safety after not contributing much in four seasons as a cornerback. Martin, who missed offseason work because of ankle surgery, is a valuable special-teams performer.


Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Cedric Griffin, FS Madieu Williams, SS Tyrell Johnson. Backups — S Husain Abdullah, CB Asher Allen, S Colt Anderson, CB Chris Cook, S Eric Frampton, S Jamarca Sanford, CB Benny Sapp, CB Lito Sheppard, CB Marcus Sherels, S Terrell Skinner, CB DeAndre Wright.

Winfield was slowed for much of last season after breaking his foot in Week 6 against Baltimore but said this spring he is fine and ready to return to full-time action at the left corner. Griffin might not be ready for the start of the season after suffering a torn ACL in the NFC title game against the Saints while playing on kick coverage to open overtime. That could mean Sheppard, coming off a disappointing one-season stint with the New York Jets, will open the year at the right corner. The safety position was one of the Vikings' biggest weaknesses last year as Johnson and Williams combined for one interception. That could be in part because of how the safeties are used in the Tampa-2 scheme but what couldn't be explained was Johnson and Williams' lack of aggressiveness at times. The two have worked hard this offseason but it would not be surprising if Sanford, a 2009 seventh-round pick, pushes one of them for a starting job in training camp. Sanford proved in limited action during his rookie season that he loves to hit. Sapp figures to be the favorite to win the nickel job again but Allen could challenge. A third-round pick out of Georgia in 2009, Allen impressed the Vikings coaches with his play this offseason. Cook, taken by the Vikings with their first selection in this year's draft (it came in the second round), figures to be worked in slowly. The Vikings really like his ability as a press corner.

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