After today's Chicago Bears veteran minicamp practice, Lovie Smith was asked about the poor play of the secondary last year. He quickly stopped the reporter in mid-question.
"Let's go over that again," Smith said. "You said last year, we did what now? We struggled against the pass? I don't see it like that. I mean, a few games maybe we had a little bit trouble with the pass, but I think we played the pass fairly well."
Despite Smith's overly positive recollection of last season, the numbers don't lie. Chicago finished 2011 ranked 28th in the league against the pass, allowing an average of 254 yards per contest. A repeat performance in 2012 will surely cost the club a shot at a championship.
For that reason, new GM Phil Emery made it a priority to upgrade the secondary this offseason. He re-signed Tim Jennings, the club's starter the past two years, while also inking veterans Jonathan Wilhite and Kelvin Hayden. On top of that, he drafted two late-round cornerbacks in Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy.
CB Tim Jennings
The team is hoping the competition amongst those seven cornerbacks will raise the level of play in the secondary this year.
"The biggest thing is they've shown, or proven, in this league that they've done a nice job, the guys we brought in," said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. "What it does is creates great competition."
Currently, Jennings and Charles Tillman are the starters outside, with D.J. Moore in the slot. Hayden is expected to challenge Jennings out wide and Wilhite will compete with Moore. Wilhite has sat out both practices so far this week, which has propelled McCoy into the backup role.
One thing is for sure: there is no lack for talent at corner.
"In my 10 years of being here, I think this is the best group of corners we've had in just overall talent," Tillman said. "Now, they're still learning the defense, but as far as a talent standpoint, I think this is by far the best group of talented young men we've had."
Tillman is the stalwart of this group and is coming off his first Pro Bowl season, which Smith said should pay dividends this year.
"Whenever you come off a Pro Bowl year, you can't wait to play that next season," said Smith. "We have some good things in mind with some of the things we're going to do with him."
The team informed Tim Jennings that he will once again have to challenge for his starting spot this year, after beating out Zack Bowman in last year's training camp. That apparently lit a fire under Jennings, who has been extremely impressive so far in minicamp.
"Jennings has had as good a camp as anyone we've had on our team throughout the offseason; made a lot of plays," Smith said. "The things we asked him to improve upon, we feel like he's really worked to do that."
Moore has been a very good nickelback for the club the past few years. He's a quality cover corner and an effective blitzer. As such, it's unlikely Wilhite will be able to de-seat arguably the best all-around cornerback on the squad.
"[Moore] did some good things last year, and you know he's had good offseason practices," said Smith. "He's a playmaker. I think he can rush for a small guy. He's got excellent hands, and we're expecting him to make a lot of big plays too."
Hayden played in Indianapolis for most of his career, where the Colts ran a Tampa 2 defense similar to Chicago's. As such, he'll provide great depth and leadership to a secondary that is very young on the back end.
At safety, the Bears are starting Chris Conte at free safety and Major Wright at strong safety. Conte has been solid this week, while Wright has been a playmaker. Both players are young – Conte is entering his second season, Wright his third – and still have room to improve, yet are currently on track to take another step this year.
S Major Wrightbr>Jonathan Daniel/Getty
"For Chris Conte and Major Wright to have an offseason to go through, both of them have a chance to be pretty good football players," Smith said. "So I feel pretty good about our secondary."
Backing up Conte and Wright are rookie Brandon Hardin at free safety and veteran Craig Steltz at strong safety. Steltz showed last year he can be a quality in-the-box defender if called upon. Hardin, a cornerback in college, is still learning the safety position but has shown very good athleticism and a strong capacity to soak up information. In addition, he's built like a powerhouse. He'll be a strong contributor once he gets comfortable on the back end.
And let's not forget the caliber of players this secondary faces on a daily basis in practice.
"We've got some great receivers," Marinelli said. "And our quarterback obviously has got a cannon. So that's great stuff for us. [They have] size and they're fast. I think our guys look forward to it and it's really great competition."
The player that arguably benefits the most is Tillman, who lines up across from Brandon Marshall, one of the best wideouts in the game, throughout each and every practice.
"The one thing I can say about Brandon is it's like game day every day," said Tillman. "Every play, I feel like I'm getting that game-quality competition. He's a competitor, I'm a competitor, and I need that. It makes me good and it pushes me, and I think it pushes him as well."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.