Following the 2012 NFL season, Chicago Bears fans were left heartbroken, with the team falling out of the playoffs for the second year in a row, and Lovie Smith was left without a job.
Don't blame any of that on Chicago's cornerbacks, a group that, collectively, performed at a higher level than any other positional unit on the roster. Let's break down the play of each individual Bears cornerback this season.
Not much new can be said about Tillman, who has been a stalwart in Chicago's secondary for the past decade. He finished second on the team in total tackles (85) and passes defended (16). He intercepted three passes, all of which he returned for touchdowns. He also led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles, recovering two of those.
Tillman was named a starter for the AP's All Pro list this week. He was also selected to his second straight Pro Bowl, while being named NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Weeks 5 and 7.
It's hard to quantify Tillman's impact on the Bears' defense year in and year out. His numbers have been great throughout his career but he seems to rise up in the biggest games. Case in point: his performance against Detroit's Calvin Johnson this year.
Johnson, easily the best wide receiver in the game, broke Jerry Rice's all-time single-season record for record for receiving yardage this year. He also led the league in targets (205), receptions (122), receiving yards per game (122.8), catches of 20 or more yards (40) and first down receptions (92), and came in second in yards after the catch (517).
Calvin Johnson & Charles Tillman
Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports
After breaking Rice's old record of 1,848 receiving yards in Week 16, Johnson needed just 109 yards in the season finale against the Bears to reach the 2,000-yard plateau. Yet, in Week 17, Tillman held Megatron to just five catches for 72 yards. In the Week 7 matchup, Johnson had just 3 catches for 34 yards.
When a cornerback can consistently shut down the most-dominant wideout in the game, a receiver no other defender in the league can stop, you know he's one of the best in the league. At 31 years old, Tillman played arguably the best football of his career in 2012.
His contract is up after next year. Given the fact he hasn't slowed down one bit in 10 seasons, it's safe to say the Bears should extend him for at least two more years following the 2013 campaign.
For the second straight year, Jennings was forced to re-earn the starting cornerback spot in training camp. In 2010, he had to beat out Zack Bowman. This year, it was newcomer Kelvin Hayden. Not only did Jennings rise up to the challenge, he absolutely dominated everyone across from him in training camp and the preseason.
That carried over to the regular season, where Jennings had easily the best year of his career. In his six previous seasons, he had never topped more than two interceptions. This year, he led the league with nine picks – one of which was returned for a score – and was third in passes defended (21), earning him a starting spot on the AP All-Pro list and the Pro Bowl.
Despite his relatively small size (5-8, 185), Jennings is arguably the toughest player on Chicago's defense. He's aggressive against the run and when the ball is in the air, and plays with an enormous chip on his shoulder. This year, opposing quarterbacks had a 53.3 QB rating when throwing at Jennings, fifth best in the league amongst corners, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 29-year-old was signed to a two-year deal this offseason and will be up for a new contract following the 2013 campaign. If he continues to play at his current level, he'll earn himself a nice big contract from the Bears.
Hayden was signed to a one-year deal this offseason to provide veteran depth at the position. His versatility did the team well, as he was able to fill in for Jennings, as well as nickelback D.J. Moore, at various points in the season. In fact, Hayden took over the starting nickelback role by midseason.
Yet his performance on the field left a lot to be desired. Hayden looked very good in zone coverage – he played in the Colts' Cover 2 system, similar to Chicago's, for his first six seasons in the NFL – yet struggled mightily in man coverage. According to PFF, opposing passers had a 93.2 QB rating when throwing at Hayden. He also allowed 12.5 yards per catch, the most of any Bears CB this year. In addition, he missed seven tackles, the most of any Chicago corner, despite playing roughly half the snaps of both Jennings and Tillman.
Hayden is a decent player with a lot of experience. Yet he's currently a free agent and the Bears could probably do better this offseason. They could bring him back on a one-year deal but I expect the team to address cornerback in either free agency or the draft.
CB D.J. Moore
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY Sports
For four seasons, Moore, a former fourth-round draft pick, has served well as the team's starting nickelback. He led the team in interceptions last season (4) and has always been very effective blitzing out of the slot. His quickness also allows him to keep pace with opposing slot receivers.
Yet Moore is a talker, one that is always willing to speak to the media. After QB Jay Cutler pushed LT J'Marcus Webb on the sidelines in Week 2, Moore spoke publicly about it, saying he didn't approve of Cutler's actions. That immediately landed him in Lovie Smith's doghouse, where he stayed for the rest of the campaign.
He was subsequently demoted for Hayden, which seemed to suck the life out of Moore. He ended up playing 102 less snaps than Hayden and was ineffective when on the field. His 101.1 QB rating against was the highest of all corners on the team, as was his 70.7 completion percentage to receivers he was covering.
Given his drop off in production, as well as his riff with the coaching staff, it's unlikely Moore will return next season. Yet, with Smith being fired, he could still be in the team's future. Overall, he's been a solid nickelback for the team. It would not surprise me if GM Phil Emery attempts to re-sign the 25-year-old this offseason.
Bowman was re-signed during the bye week, after playing his first four years in Chicago, and played just 21 snaps on defense. His contributions came mainly on special teams, where he finished second on the team in tackles (11), to go along with a fumble recovery.
Bowman was originally drafted by the Bears in 2008 and started 12 games at corner in 2009. Yet he never lived up to expectations on defense. Overall, he just hasn't shown enough skill in coverage to earn additional playing time. That said, he's outstanding on special teams and could get re-signed to anchor that unit.
The Bears traded FB Tyler Clutts to the Houston Texans for McManis a week before the season began. He never saw the field on defense but he was a force on special teams. Despite missing the final three contests due to injury, McManis finished third on the team in special teams tackles (10) to go along with a blocked punt in Week 9 – which Corey Wootton returned for a touchdown.
For his efforts in Week 9, McManis was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. If the new coaching staff puts as much emphasis on special teams as Smith did, McManis will have a long, productive career in Chicago. His contract is up after next season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.