Commentary

Afalava impressing those who count

Safety filling in for injured secondary players

Originally Published: August 18, 2009
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPNChicago.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- While he may have a last name that's a bit difficult to pronounce, that's not keeping Al Afalava's name from being on a lot of people's lips these days.

A sixth-round draft choice and seventh selection overall by the Bears, the former Oregon State standout has had an outstanding training camp thus far.

Most importantly, he's impressed the guys who make the decisions about who plays and stays, and who gets cut and goes home: the Bears' coaching staff.

"He's making plays," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "A lot of times when rookies come in, especially in the secondary, they're quiet. But he has a little bit of confidence, he talks because he knows what's going on, has good skills, good size, good quickness, good raw speed and his strong suit is hitting."

Afalava showed just how much he likes to hit by recording six tackles in the Bears' preseason opener Saturday at Buffalo, one of the few Bears' highlights in an otherwise disappointing 27-20 loss.

A Hawaiian native, Afalava is currently listed as the Bears' No. 2 strong safety, behind Kevin Payne and in front of fellow rookie and undrafted free agent Dahna Deleston.

But with free safety Danieal Manning still bothered by a lingering hamstring issue, Afalava's stock has gone up considerably, mainly due to his versatility. While he is primarily a strong safety, he can also play free safety with equal aplomb.

That means Afalava can not only fill in for Payne, but could take over as No. 1 strong safety if Manning's hamstring problems continue. Some published reports have Afalava ready to be promoted to starting strong safety, with Payne likely being shifted to No. 1 free safety to at least temporarily take Manning's position.

But on the flip side, the quick and speedy Afalava could also switch from strong to free safety, if needed. That gives the Bears greater versatility and depth in the secondary and plays to one of Afalava's strengths, that of being a roamer who has a knack to be drawn to plays.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick who could wind up being one of the biggest steals of the draft if he continues to improve and becomes a fixture of the secondary.

"We really like our depth and getting a player like Al Afalava to come around," Smith said.

Saturday's display by Afalava against Buffalo wasn't a total surprise. He's shined during training camp practices and has shown he's not intimidated by opposing quarterbacks, even the likes of Pro Bowl teammate Jay Cutler.

"[Cutler] looks at me when I try to disguise [coverage], and says 'ah, he's nuts,'" Afalava said with a laugh. "But I just have to execute. It's knowing his reads and stuff, just studying him and what he does. It's really a privilege."

With comments like that, you can quickly tell that Afalava is somewhat of a soft-spoken type. He's not boisterous like Tommie Harris or a bull like Brian Urlacher. Rather, he's the studious type who lets his actions -- rather than his words -- speak for himself on the field of play.

"It's all about thinking," Afalava said. "I've just got to go out there, bear down and play."

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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