Having addressed needs on the offensive line through free agency and holes at wide receiver through the draft, the Chicago Bears as still weighing their options at free safety.
Fans often drift into an almost dream-like state when thinking back to Mike Brown's big moments in a Bears uniform. But those days are just a distant memory. In Brown, the Bears had--and lost--a leader, a playmaker, and a big-hitter. As great of a safety as he may have been, it became clear that he probably would never revert to the durable playmaker he once was.
When it comes to replacing Brown, the first person that comes to mind is his former understudy, Danieal Manning. Manning is young, has plenty of experience at free safety, is athletic and has more than enough speed to play the position. But his instincts have come into question numerous times, and the Bears seem content with playing him at nickel corner. Still, he has yet to be ruled out as an option, and is listed as a free safety on the team's official website.
Safety Josh Bullocks, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, is the man currently penciled in as the starter, and has starting experience. He signed with Chicago on March 11th, in a move that sent angry shockwaves through fan circles that were already displeased with the team's lack of activity in the free agent market.
The Bears have continued to stock their secondary during the offseason with free agent Glenn Earl and used a sixth-round draft pick on Oregon State's Al Afalava. Both are prototypical strong safeties, which the Bears already have in starter Kevin Payne and LSU product Craig Steltz.
Besides acquiring Bullocks, this offseason's free agent market offered few solid, viable options. On Draft Weekend, potential targets Sherrod Martin and Rashad Johnson were both off the board by the time the Bears went on the clock.
Moving a cornerback to the safety position has been a hot topic lately, especially with the notoriety that Antrel Rolle received as part of the NFC Championship Arizona Cardinals. The media firestorm that supported moving Charles Tillman to safety, an idea Head Coach Lovie Smith has denounced on several occasions, finally has lost most of its steam.
Still, converting a corner is not entirely out of the equation. Zachary Bowman was used as the second-team free safety during the team's veteran minicamp in March, but little news has yet to come to light regarding whether or not his move was permanent.
Corey Graham has surfaced as a potential free safety candidate. Graham, however, could also come out of camp as a starting corner. The team's faith in Nathan Vasher has been a burning issue throughout the offseason, and the roles of Trumaine McBride and rookie draftee D.J. Moore remain to be seen, all of which could factor into where Graham ultimately lines up.
If the Bears are content and confident with Charles Tillman and Corey Graham as their starting cornerbacks, there's no reason why the Bears shouldn't experiment with plugging in Nathan Vasher at free safety at some point during training camp. From a financial standpoint, he needs to be a key defensive contributor.
Regardless of how the Bears fill the position, the secondary needs a fast, solid free safety to help shut down receivers deep downfield. Teams last season could move the ball on the Bears through the air with frightening ease, and Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, and Bernard Berrian will all be looking to torch Chicago for points again this season.
Perhaps the true test will come on November 8th, when Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals will bring their aerial assault to Soldier Field. It could potentially be a game that proves if the Bears can truly defend the deep ball, or if they're just relying on smoke and mirrors.
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