LINK to the article Tillman remains rock at cornerback Bears need Tillman and Jennings to continue solid play until reinforcements develop
By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter July 21, 2012 11th in a 14-part series leading up to the start of Bears training camp.
Charles Tillman has played a lot of good football during his nine years with the Bears.
But he was honored as a Pro Bowl selection for the first time last season. Maybe it wasn't his best year individually but the recognition was fitting. He now has played in 130 games for the Bears and has missed only six over the last seven seasons, a tribute to his durability and conditioning.
Tillman was not a favorite of coach Lovie Smith when he arrived but he quickly became a main cog in the Cover-2 scheme. He has amassed 30 career interceptions and 28 forced fumbles.
He has been around so long it's easy to think he's older than 31. Now, with two years remaining on the contract extension he signed in 2007, he should be a core member for at least a couple more seasons. Still, like most of the other key players on defense, Tillman is on the wrong side of 30 and he serves as another reminder the window for this defense is closing soon.
But make no mistake, he's an integral player for 2012. Tillman is used to locking up with big wide receivers that are major threats. That means two challenges per season from Calvin Johnson of the Lions. He could find himself paired against some other top players this season, including the Texans' Andre Johnson, the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald and maybe even an encore meeting with San Francisco's Randy Moss, a familiar nemesis from the past.
The Bears need Tillman to perform big until they can begin a transition. They had to do some shuffling in March because Tim Jennings, who started 15 games last season, Corey Graham and Zack Bowman all were coming out of contract. Basically, everyone but Tillman and nickel cornerback D.J. Moore was departing. Jennings re-signed with a $6.6 million, two-year contract. But Bowman exited in free agency and the Bears failed in an effort to re-sign Corey Graham, who followed the path taken by former Pro Bowl special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo and signed with the Ravens.
The club added Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy with sixth- and seventh-round draft picks, respectively, while also signing Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite on the open market. So, there are some veterans and young players for defensive backs coach Jon Hoke to sort through.
Hoke's name has become more popular in league circles the last two years. He interviewed to become the defensive coordinator of the Eagles after the 2010 season and this offseason he interviewed for the same role with the Buccaneers. The Bears blocked a request from the Vikings to interview him. A peek ahead:
The Bears poked around Hayden last summer but opted not to sign him because he had a neck issue. When he arrived this spring and did sign, a toe injury sidelined him for some time. If he can remain healthy, he should be a plus addition even if he doesn't unseat Jennings for a starting job.
Jennings sometimes isn't appreciated as he should be and it appears the Bears realized that after they benched him in Week 16 and then gave him starter money less than two months later in free agency. ProFootballFocus.com graded out Jennings as the NFL's 17th best cornerback.
He's a physical tackler in run support fourth-most on the team according to coaches' review of game film with 87 — and he rarely was beaten for big plays. Smith thought Jennings should have had more interceptions but he fits the overall scheme well and, if you're judging by the contracts, will start over Hayden, a former teammate with the Colts.
Wilhite is in the mix for competition and the Bears are anxious to see what Frey and McCoy can accomplish. The guess here is only one of the draft picks makes the roster but there is always room for young talent if both show enough.
Moore remains locked into the nickel position. Some have wondered about him transitioning to the outside but he's too small to fit that role at 5 feet 9, 180 pounds. It's a critical season for him because he's entering a contract year.
He had four interceptions last season and his 60 tackles indicate he was solid in run support. Working behind him at nickel during the offseason program was Jeremy Jones, an undrafted rookie from Wayne State that the club lists as a safety. Glass half-full:
For a guy who has had two shoulder surgeries and two back surgeries, Tillman barely has missed any time on the field. The Bears need him to remain in place. No one considers him a lockdown man-to-man cornerback but he performs well against big, physical receivers and he has a nose for the ball.
On the other side, Jennings needs to hold onto a few balls that he gets his hands on. The Bears will really be in good shape if Hayden can remain healthy and one of the draft picks shows promise. Glass half-empty:
An inconsistent pass rush could cause some real issues for this unit. The Bears are lacking proven young talent here and some injuries really could put the defense in a bind and limit some of the things the team could do scheme-wise. Remember, Tillman won't be a rock on that island forever. Bottom line:
With three players departing, the Bears found some journeymen to plug in while hoping general manager Phil Emery can have some luck with late-round picks. This position likely will evolve in the next few years. Like some of the other spots on defense, the Bears are hoping for a few more good seasons. Coming Sunday: Safeties.