The Chicago Bears finished 28th in the NFL last year defending the pass. Some have blamed that on the poor play of the secondary, while others believe the lack of a consistent pass rush was the real culprit. In reality, it was a little of both.
The club addressed the pass rush with its first round pick, then GM Phil Emery went to work addressing the secondary. With three of his last four selections, he grabbed a safety and two cornerbacks.
On top of that, Emery signed two corners in veteran free agency. Obviously, he saw the need for fresh faces on the back end of the defense. Yet he also saw talent from last year's club, which is why he re-signed Tim Jennings and Craig Steltz.
Let's take an in-depth look at the cornerbacks and safeties that Chicago is bringing to Bourbonnais.
CB Tim Jennings
Since 2003, Charles Tillman has been the anchor of the cornerback unit. Despite players around him filtering in and out, Tillman has been the constant. He has always performed at a high level, using his ideal body type and skill set to become one of the best Cover 2 corners in the league.
After nine years without recognition, Tillman finally earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last year. It was more of a makeup honor, as even Tillman admitted he didn't play his best season as a pro in 2011. Still, he's a quality player that, despite being 31, has plenty left in the tank.
On the other side, Tim Jennings will again open camp as the starter. He was solid throughout most of 2011, showing well in zone coverage and in run support. His toughness is what earned him a two-year contract this offseason. Yet he struggles in press coverage and went through a rough patch late in the season, leading to a one-game benching in Week 16.
As such, the team informed Jennings that he will again have to earn his starting spot this year. He'll be challenged by Kelvin Hayden, who spent six of his first seven years in the NFL in Indianapolis, in a defense similar to Chicago's. Last offseason, the Bears worked him out but chose not to sign him because of injury concerns. The front office was justified in their hesitancy, as Hayden ended up missing half the 2012 season with the Falcons due to a knee injury.
Hayden is a Chicago native who played collegiate ball at Illinois. He's best known in the Windy City for returning an interception for a touchdown against the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. If he shines in Bourbonnais, he could leapfrog Jennings.
The Bears have one of the most-efficient nickelbacks in the league in D.J. Moore. As a slot corner, he has been outstanding, showing well in coverage, against the run and as a blitzer. He's one of the most underrated players on this defense and will again be a key cog to the group's success in 2012.
He'll be challenged in camp by Jonathan Wilhite, who signed a one-year deal with the Bears this offseason. Wilhite is an experienced nickelback, who previously played in that role for both the Patriots and Broncos. He's an active player with good closing speed. He missed time during OTAs due to injury.
The two rookies, Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy, will be battling for a roster spot. It will likely come down to which player stands out on special teams. The edge here goes to McCoy, who was an accomplished returner at TCU. Additionally, during veteran minicamp when Wilhite was out, McCoy was running with the second team, not Frey. It appears McCoy is the frontrunner for a final roster spot.
Cornelius Brown is a second-year player signed after the Bears cut QB Nathan Enderle. He played with the Colts last year, in their version of the Cover 2. Considering how many players are ahead of him, he'll need to be unbelievable in camp if he's going to make the final 53.
This is the area of the team where the legs get a bit wobbly. The club has had an ongoing rotation of safeties since Lovie Smith took over in 2004. This season, there are again big question marks at the position.
Major Wright needs to take a step forward this year at strong safety. Injuries hurt him last season and he appeared to regress as the campaign wore on. He's inconsistent as a tackler and in coverage. He's the most athletic safety on the team but he needs to curb his mental mistake or he'll end up on the bench.
S Major Wright
Kirby Lee/US Presswire
At free safety, Chris Conte will begin the year as the starter. Injuries and poor play from the veterans last year propelled Conte into the starting role in Week 6, where he stayed until Week 16, when he placed on IR with an ankle injury. During that nine-game stretch as a starter, Conte performed very well for a rookie. He appeared to grasp his role in the defense and did not make any major mistakes. There's no reason to think he won't take a step forward this season.
Four-year veteran Craig Steltz is breathing down Wright's neck for the starting strong safety gig. He started the final four games in 2011 and was outstanding against the run. In coverage, he's been known to make bad mental mistakes, but as an in-the-box safety, he can be a valuable weapon. If he has a strong preaseaon, he'll overtake Wright as the starter.
The Bears selected Brandon Hardin in the third round this year. He missed his entire senior season due to a shoulder injury, so he came relatively cheap. Hardin has 4.5 speed and packs a punch as a tackler. He played cornerback at Oregon State and has decent cover skills. Size-wise, Hardin is built like a tank. He's learning a new position, which will take time, but his extreme athleticism could get him on the field sooner than later. At the very least, he's going to be a valued member on special teams.
Coston, Walters and Jones are all camp bodies with very little chance of making the team. It's worth noting that Jones was getting reps as the backup nickelback during minicamp. If any of these three has a realistic shot at a roster spot, it's Jones.
Tillman is the leader of this group and, barring injury, will start all 16 games this year. Opposite him, Jennings will beat out Hayden. Although, if Jennings struggles during the regular season, the coaching staff won't hesitate to make the switch.
D.J. Moore is set at nickel. The remaining cornerback job will come down to a competition between Wilhite, McCoy and Frey. The club could keep six corners, depending on their value on special teams, which I believe is likely.
At safety, it's real simple: Wright, Conte, Steltz and Hardin are your guys. Barring injury, those four will break camp as members of the 53-man roster.
CB Starters: Tillman, Jennings, Moore
CB Backups: Hayden, Wilhite, McCoy
S Starters: Conte, Wright
S Backups: Steltz, Hardin
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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.