Bears to start rookie S Manning ahead of Harris

Despite an undefeated record, and a defense that statistically ranks No. 5 in the NFL and has surrendered just seven points in two games, the Chicago Bears aren't standing pat.

Seeking improvement, the Bears have elevated rookie Danieal Manning to starting free safety, where he will replace second-year veteran Chris Harris. The move was made at practice Wednesday, following Manning's two strong performances as a backup. He a second-round choice and the Bears' top selection in the 2006 draft.

"We've seen Danieal make some good plays ... [and] we think he gives us the best chance to win," said coach Lovie Smith, whose team faces the surprising Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. "He's the best player at the position right now."

Playing primarily in nickel situations in the first two games of the season, Manning notched three tackles. He flashed his playmaker skills by intercepting a pass on opening day, the first Chicago player since 1995 to record a theft in his debut, and also had another pass defensed in that game. Last week, the former Abilene Christian standout deflected a pass and made a solo tackle.

This is the second consecutive year that the Bears have made a change at the No. 1 free safety position early in the season. Harris, a sixth-round pick in 2005, supplanted Mike Green at free safety in the second game last season and finished with 13 starts, 70 tackles and three interceptions.

Smith went out of his way to explain that the change was not so much a reflection of Harris' performance, as it was an endorsement of Manning as a defender who has the potential to alter games at free safety.

Said Manning, a former Division II player whose stock skyrocketed in the month preceding the draft: "I just feel like I'm playing with a lot of confidence now. I'm seeing things better and getting a good jump on the ball."

Manning possesses coverage skills that are nearly at the cornerback level, so he can move out and match up with wide receivers in the slot in some packages. In college, Manning played a little cornerback, although his primary position was strong safety. Many scouts were uncertain what his best position at the NFL level would be.

The Bears knew, though, that Manning was a playmaker and, after trading their first-round pick, chose him with the 42nd overall selection and signed him to a four-year, $2.975 million contract.

At Abilene Christian, Manning had 159 tackles, two sacks, 11 interceptions, six forced fumbles and four recoveries in 30 games. He was also a standout on special teams, with four blocked kicks, and probably will continue to play on the Chicago kicking units.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.