Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Chicago coach Lovie Smith revealed a pair of interesting and unexpected depth chart maneuvers Wednesday morning on the team's Web site.
Danieal Manning, and not second-year player Craig Steltz, will open training camp with the first team at free safety. Steltz will compete with Kevin Payne for the strong safety job and replace Manning at free safety in the nickel package, Smith told ChicagoBears.com writer Larry Mayer.
With Charles Tillman sidelined after back surgery, second-year cornerback Zackary Bowman will work with the first team. There had been some speculation that Corey Graham would move back to cornerback from safety, but Smith said that Bowman stood out during spring practices. Tillman is expected to return as the starter in time for the regular season, but Bowman's ascendance gives you a good idea of where the Bears' depth chart stands at this point.
Manning started 29 games during his first two seasons as the Bears dealt with injuries to veteran Mike Brown. Twenty-six of those starts came at free safety. But Manning wasn't considered a strong cover man during that period. Steltz finished offseason workouts as the No. 1 free safety after Brown's departure, and it was expected that he would compete with Graham for the starting job.
The Bears' plan to use Steltz in the nickel is unusual and reflects Manning's limited coverage ability. But Smith has personally coached the nickel group in the past and it's clear he is calling these shots.
In the big picture, these developments mean the Bears have plenty of evaluative work to do when training camp opens Friday. They're going to get a good idea of what they have in Bowman, and they should find out once and for all if Manning can be a starting-caliber safety or if he is destined to be a subordinate defensive player along with his role on kickoff returns.