There's really no beating around the bush when it comes to the Chicago Bears' secondary. The group was subpar last season and something needs to be done, either through the draft or free agency, to turn a team weakness into a team strength.
Safety help is a must but the cornerback position also needs to be reshaped. Charles Tillman is a Pro Bowler but he turns 31 this week and could soon start on a downslide in terms of production. D.J. Moore is a solid nickelback but the other three corners on the roster – Corey Graham, Tim Jennings and Zach Bowman – are all unrestricted free agents.
Chicago finished 28th in pass defense last year and 20th in 2010. The time is now to start developing a group of cornerbacks that can help the club become more productive on the back end.
If the Bears want to go young, they can select one of these early round corners in this year's draft. If they want a more established player, the organization can turn to the open market and sign one of the following veterans.
Brandon Carr, KC (6-0, 207) Age: 25
Carr has developed into one of the league's top cover corners. In man coverage, he's an absolute beast and has the size to matchup with the NFL's elite wideouts. There was speculation the Chiefs could place the franchise tag on Carr, yet the team just signed Stanford Routt this afternoon, and already has money invested in Brandon Flowers, so it looks like Carr is going to hit the open market. New Bears GM Phil Emery was part of the scouting team in K.C. that made Carr a fifth round pick in 2008, so he knows what the young corner, who is just entering his prime, would bring to Chicago. If the organization is serious about upgrading its pass defense, the front office needs to make a strong push for Carr.
Brent Grimes, ATL (5-10, 183) Age: 29
Grimes is a Pro Bowl corner that has picked off 13 passes the last three seasons combined. He's a ball hawk that excels in man coverage. There are red flags with Grimes though. After picking off 12 passes in 2009 and 2010 combined, he intercepted just one last season. There are also rumors he sat out the Falcons' playoff game against New York so as to not risk an injury before hitting free agency. There's still a chance Atlanta will tag him but even if he does become unrestricted, the Bears will have to weigh his pros against his many cons.
Cortland Finnegan, TEN (5-10, 188) Age: 28
Finnegan is a very good cornerback with a feisty personality. What he lacks in size he makes up for in aggressiveness. He performs well in both man and zone sets. It's likely the Titans will franchise him if the two sides can't reach a long-term deal. His on-field antics – see Johnson, Andre – might also be a deterrent for Lovie Smith.
Carlos Rogers, SF (6-0, 192) Age: 31
Rogers had an outstanding season in 2011. He limited opposing receivers to a 52.6 completion percentage and intercepted six passes. His presence in the secondary was one of the many reasons San Francisco's defense rose to the elite category last year. The 49ers are considering placing the tag on him. His age is a concern, but if he hits the open market, he'd be a good short-term option for the Bears.
Richard Marshall, ARI (5-11, 198) Age: 27
Marshall played very well for the Cardinals last year, picking off three passes and deflecting an additional 11. He played both cornerback and safety, filling in for the injured Kerry Rhodes. His versatility makes him very attractive, especially for a team like Chicago with needs throughout the secondary. Arizona is working to lock him up long-term but if they can't, Marshall would make a nice fit in Chicago.
William Middleton, JAX (5-11, 194) Age: 26
Middleton is a very intriguing option. He was the fourth corner for Jacksonville last year yet saw plenty of playing time due to injuries. He's still a raw player who has started just nine games in his three-year career, but he has a lot of potential. He will command a much cheaper price tag than most of the other free agent corners.
Terrell Thomas, NYG (6-0, 191)
Thomas is a very talented young player who could be a cornerstone in Chicago's secondary for years to come. If the Bears can sign him, they should. The problem is Thomas and the Giants are currently in contract talks and he appears likely to stay in New York. He missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL but says he should be ready to play in Week 1. If he somehow becomes unrestricted, the Bears definitely need to inquire about his services.
BEAR REPORT PICK
Obviously, Carr is the best choice here. There are a ton of teams in need of a quality corner, so he won't come cheap, but there are no better options in either free agency or the upcoming draft. If the Bears want to make in immediate, significant upgrade to the secondary, they have to woo Carr with everything they have.
A thriftier option is Middleton, a young player with plenty of upside. If the Bears can land him on the cheap, he could end up being a starter down the line, and a bargain in the process.
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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.