The Chicago Bears finished 2011 ranked 28th in pass defense. On average, opposing offenses threw for 254 yards per game, which was better than just four teams in the NFL. Injuries and some poor play at the safety position deserve much of the blame but the corners were not without fault.
Charles Tillman was selected to the first Pro Bowl of his nine-year career. He still plays at a high level at times but he lacks consistency. He turns 31 this week, so his best days are behind him. It's anyone's guess when he'll start to decline but the writing is on the wall.
D.J. Moore performed well out of the slot. He has found a place as the team's starting nickelback and has excelled, both in coverage and as a blitzer, from that position.
CB Tim Jennings
Beyond that, the Bears have some major questions to answer. Tim Jennings, Corey Graham and Zach Bowman are all free agents. Jennings fits the Cover 2 scheme but he's really nothing more than an average player. Graham made his first Pro Bowl as a special teams player this year, and played very well during a three-game stretch as a starter. The Bears have been reluctant to give him regular playing time on defense, which could impel him to sign elsewhere. Bowman was eaten up last season and is very unlikely to return.
With so many questions hanging over this group, Chicago's front office would be wise to snag at least one corner in the upcoming draft. Here are 10 cornerbacks the team should consider selecting in the first three rounds.
Morris Claiborne, LSU (6-0, 185)
Claiborne is easily the most talented corner in the draft. He's a physical player with outstanding speed and cover skills. Unfortunately for the Bears, the team will have to trade into the top five to draft him. Next.
Projected: Top 5
Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama (6-2, 192)
Kirkpatrick is talented enough to be a top 10 pick in this draft. His combination of size and strength gives him the potential to be a lockdown cornerback at the next level. He played mostly man coverage in college and has the long arms and leaping ability to matchup with bigger receivers. He's very physical in run support as well. He was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession in January – no charges were filed – which has some NFL teams questioning his character. It's unlikely he'll fall all the way to Chicago at 19th overall, but if he does, the Bears will be hard pressed to pass him up.
Projected: Top 20
Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama (5-10, 191)
Jenkins is uncannily instinctive on the outside. His ball skills are top-tier and he's extremely aggressive when the pass is in the air. He's a fluid player who can change directions effortlessly. He has solid closing speed and is very willing in run support. He lacks ideal size but makes up for it with his nastiness on the field. Jenkins transferred from Florida after an assault arrest and two marijuana-related citations following the 2010 season. Character issues are a major concern.
Projected: 1st round
Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska (5-10, 203)
Dennard is a physical corner who excels in press coverage. He's very good at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage and re-routing them. His short-area awareness and ball skills are outstanding. He's NFL ready for a team in need of a press corner. Yet at the Senior Bowl, he was asked to play mostly zone and he struggled mightily. He doesn't appear to be a great fit for Chicago's system.
Projected: 1st-2nd round
CB Stephon Gilmore
Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina (6-1, 193)
Gilmore is a pure zone player. He has great read and react time in zone coverage. He breaks hard on plays in front of him and is a sure tackler. He has good instincts and uses his tall frame well in jump-ball situations. In run support, he's very aggressive and packs a wallop. Gilmore is a quiet player who has been praised for his work ethic. He doesn't have blazing speed and lacks bulk. In essence, he fits all the criteria for a Cover 2 corner in Lovie Smith's system.
Projected: 2nd round
Chase Minnifield, Virginia (6-0, 185)
Minnifield's best traits are his intelligence and aggressiveness. He lacks ideal speed but makes up for it with great instincts. He's solid in zone coverage, keeping his head on a swivel and breaking hard once the ball is thrown. He's one of the best open-field tacklers in the draft, something the Bears always covet from their cornerbacks. He's limited as a press player but should fit well in a zone-heavy system like Chicago's.
Projected: 2nd round
Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech (5-10, 172)
Hosley has terrific quickness, speed and ball skills. As a sophomore in 2010, he led the nation with nine interceptions. He changes directions well and shows exceptional feel in zone coverage, in which he played for most of his collegiate career. He lacks ideal size but plays with a chip on his shoulder and gives full effort every outing. Hosley is a scrappy player who isn't afraid to get dirty in run support, although he's lacking a bit in the tackling department. He appears to be an ideal fit for nickelback in the NFL.
Projected: 2nd-3rd round
Brandon Boykin, Georgia (5-9, 183)
Boykin was a standout at the Senior Bowl, displaying his elite athleticism. He has top-level speed, allowing him to close and make up for his lack of instincts. He's tough in press coverage and shows solid awareness and closing ability in zone schemes. He has skills as a kick returner as well and won the 2011 Paul Hornung award as the most versatile player in college football. He broke his leg at the Senior Bowl, which will likely keep him out of the Scouting Combine and could cause him to slip down some draft boards.
Projected: 2nd-3rd round
Leonard Johnson, Iowa State (5-10, 202)
Johnson is a pure shutdown corner who is extremely physical at the line of scrimmage. He uses his hands well to re-route receivers and has the speed to keep pace down the field. He's lacking a bit in zone coverage yet displays good quickness breaking on passes in front of him. He's a thick, compact player that is physical and tough as a tackler.
Projected: 2nd-3rd round
CB Josh Norman
Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina (6-1, 190)
Norman was arguably the most impressive player at this year's East-West Shrine Game. He demonstrated quick feet, good closing burst and natural ball skills. He's a raw prospect that will need to work on his fundamentals at the next level but his potential is off the charts. He's a fluid secondary player with good speed. His long arms and natural instincts have him climbing up draft boards.
Projected: 3rd round
BEAR REPORT PICK
Cornerback is the deepest position in this year's draft, so the Bears could hold off in the first few rounds and still get a quality player. A good second round pick would be Gilmore, if he falls to Chicago with the 50th overall pick. His skill-set and aggressiveness have all the makings of a quality Cover 2 corner.
Yet the best move here would be to wait until the third round to grab Norman. This kid has been extremely impressive the past month, showcasing elite-level talent and potential. Playing at a smaller school, he hasn't gotten the same publicity as some of his big-school counterparts. Yet Norman has demonstrated all the natural tools that could make him a quality starter at the next level. His size is similar to that of Tillman and his ceiling is even higher. If the Bears can snag him in the third round, it will be a draft-day steal.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.