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Wednesday, May 5, 2010
What's the best combo at safety?

By Jeff Dickerson

Danieal Manning
Danieal Manning has seen time as a free safety, strong safety, nickelback, cornerback and kick returner in his tenure with the Bears.
In Chicago, scrutiny and the safety position go hand in hand. Perhaps that’s why coach Love Smith hasn’t been able to make a firm decision on a long-term combination at the position. Since the their Super Bowl run during the 2006 season, Chicago Bears coach Love Smith has changed out safeties at an alarming rate, using five different combinations in 2009 alone.

Having passed on high-priced safety Antrel Rolle in free agency, the Bears drafted Major Wright (third round), traded for Chris Harris and sent Kevin Payne to the St. Louis Rams. The additions of Harris and Wright run up the current roster totals at safety to six in a group which also includes Danieal Manning, Josh Bullocks, Craig Steltz and Al Afalava.

Despite all the manpower at the position, just two can start for the Bears on opening day. Here’s a look at three potential combinations at safety Smith might consider this fall, listed in order by their likelihood of occurring:

1. Chris Harris (FS) and Danieal Manning (SS):Harris said he views himself as a strong safety in a recent interview, but it might be a stretch to think rookie Major Wright will be ready to start immediately. Harris logged extensive snaps throughout his career at free safety. So if he stays healthy, Harris gives the Bears a playmaker roaming the deep middle of the field. Some in Carolina questioned whether Harris still possesses the range or speed to play free safety, which is believed to be a reason the Panthers would have released the veteran if not for the trade to Chicago.

Manning, meanwhile, played well in the box last season against the San Francisco 49ers (eight tackles), and possesses the strength to support against the run and the speed to effectively cover tight ends. It’s believed Manning may have put himself in the Bears' doghouse by missing the first few weeks of the voluntary offseason workout program. But Smith remains one of Manning’s fans, despite some in the organization questioning the defensive back’s instincts. The latter concern could keep Manning out of the mix for a move back to free safety.

2. Major Wright (FS) and Chris Harris (SS): This only applies if Wright wows the Bears during training camp and the preseason, which is certainly a possibility. But it’s always dangerous to assume any rookie -- especially a third-round selection -- can step right on the field and make a significant contribution. Wright seems to possess an infectious attitude, in addition to all the necessary size and athletic ability to contribute. If Wright develops quickly, maybe Smith could slide Harris down to his more comfortable strong safety spot.

Harris forced 12 fumbles over three seasons in Carolina, and appears to be capable of providing the Bears with significant help in run support. Harris could also serve as a veteran mentor to Wright, similar to the way Mike Brown helped along Manning in 2006.

3. Craig Steltz (FS) and Chris Harris (SS): Steltz continued to work with the first team unit at free safety (Manning lined up at strong safety) this week during voluntary sessions as Harris works to get back up to speed on the nuances of Chicago’s scheme.

While most question Steltz’s coverage skills, the team seems pleased with his work ethic, intelligence and knack for consistently making the most of limited opportunities. Steltz likely isn’t the ideal solution long-term for this spot. But there’s little question whether Steltz would be prepared if called upon in an emergency (He racked up 10 tackles in a pair of 2009 starts). Steltz and Harris could also flip-flop if necessary. But this combination on paper seems to be lacking somewhat in the speed department. Harris would probably be better served paired with a faster safety such as Manning or Wright.

Michael C. Wright contributed to this report.