Bears Positional Battles: Cornerback

The Chicago Bears have two All Pro starting cornerbacks but beyond Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, there are potentially three roster spots up for grabs. We break down the competition.

Here's an understatement: Chicago Bears cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings were pretty good last year.

Tillman led the league in forced fumbles and Jennings led the league in interceptions. Their efforts helped guide a Bears defense that ranked 8th in the league against the pass in 2012, 4th in opposing yards per pass play, 1st in total interceptions and 2nd in opposing passer rating.

Looking back at the history of the organization, it can be argued that no cornerback pairing has ever had as much success in the same season as Tillman and Jennings did last year. They were starters at the Pro Bowl and both were named first-team All Pro.

Yet beyond those two, there is little depth on Chicago's roster at cornerback, meaning multiple positions are currently available for the taking. Let's break down the competitors.

Leading the Pack

Kelvin Hayden (6-0, 195) 9th year
Hayden was signed last season to compete with D.J. Moore for the starting nickelback role. Moore won the job in training camp yet Hayden supplanted him by midseason. The team said goodbye to Moore this offseason and re-signed Hayden to a one-year deal. Yet he was by no means consistent last season. He was beaten far too regularly out of the slot and ranked the lowest of any Chicago corner by Pro Football Focus. He's an established veteran but he has serious limitations. His roster spot is safe, assuming he doesn't implode in training camp, but if another corner steps up and shows he's better suited for the nickelback gig, Hayden could struggle to keep his starting role.

The Frontrunners

Zack Bowman (6-1, 196) 6th year
In 2009, Bowman started 12 games for the Bears and led the club in interceptions (6). He eventually lost his starting job to Jennings the following year and has struggled since then. He signed with the Vikings as a free agent last offseason but was waived early in the campaign. The Bears were quick to re-sign him and he proved to be a valuable member of special teams. This week, with Jennings in Germany supporting the troops, Bowman was inserted into the starting lineup, meaning the new coaching staff feels he has the potential to start if need be. He must improve his tackling and be more physical with opposing wide receivers but Bowman has shown playmaking ability in the past. A fresh start with a new coaching staff could be just what he needs to revive his career as a defender.

Sherrick McManis (6-1, 193) 4th year
The Bears traded for McManis a few days before the start of last season and he paid dividends as a special teams player. He finished third on the team in special teams tackles (10) and recovered a fumble. He has never started an NFL game on defense and likely won't be asked to do so with the Bears but McManis is good enough on special teams where he should be able to keep his roster spot.

The Wildcards

Isaiah Frey (5-11, 190) 2nd year
Frey, the club's sixth-round selection in 2012, spent last season on the practice squad and the time has apparently done him well. He's currently working as the primary backup to Hayden at nickelback. Working with the second team, Frey has made a number of impressive plays and looks light years better than he did at this time last year. Right now, if any player is going to supplant Hayden in the slot, it's Frey.

C.J. Wilson (5-11, 187) Rookie
Wilson was signed as an undrafted free agent and has been solid so far during minicamps and OTAs. With Jennings out this week, the Bears moved Wilson up to the second team, working opposite McManis out wide. Wilson has great instincts and ball skills. He's very inconsistent but of all the rookie defensive backs, Wilson is by far the most impressive.

Long Shots

Demontre Hurst (5-10, 183) Rookie

Maurice Jones (5-9, 193) Rookie

Hurst and Jones are camp bodies who have been beaten regularly in defensive back drills so far during minicamps. If either player has a shot at making Chicago's final 53-man roster, he'll need to be outstanding on special teams, especially with McManis and Bowman ahead of them on the depth chart.

Prediction

This competition will come down to special teams, which leads me to believe the jobs of both Bowman and McManis, two special-teams weapons, are safe. Bowman working with the starters this week further confirms his job stability.

The player of most interest is Frey, who has a legitimate shot at displacing Hayden if he continues to play well during training camp and the preseason. Frey is faster, quicker and younger than Hayden. If he has taken the necessary strides this year, he could completely shake up the roster.

Wilson appears destined for the practice squad, yet he has shown enough potential to be a contributor in a year or two.


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.

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