In 2011, Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings was forced to beat out Zack Bowman in training camp for the starting gig opposite Charles Tillman. Jennings had a strong overall campaign but he faded down the stretch and was even benched for one game. As a result, former head coach Lovie Smith again made Jennings earn the starting role last year over Kelvin Hayden.
It wasn't much of a competition, as Jennings severely outplayed Hayden in Bourbonnais. Yet, heading into 2012, it was still unclear whether Jennings was a long-term starting option.
It took just one week for him to put those questions to rest. In the season opener, Jennings picked off two passes, one of which was an amazing downfield interception in which he leaped seemingly six feet in the air to snag the ball out of the air. In one game, Jennings matched his single-season career high for interceptions.
But he didn't stop there, intercepting one pass in each of the next two games en route to the greatest season of his career. Jennings finished 2012 with a league-leading nine interceptions, while his 21 passes defended were third most in the NFL. For his efforts, he was named a Pro Bowl starter and first-team All Pro.
Not bad for a 29-year-old cornerback who just five months earlier was battling for a starting role.
One thing is for sure: Jennings won't have to again earn a starting gig this year. His performance last season was arguably the greatest single-season performance in franchise history, so his job is safe.
Yet despite dominating for all of 2012, can we expect the same from Jennings this year? Let's break it down.
Why Jennings will repeat
Jennings is a late bloomer. He started just 21 games in four seasons with the Colts before signing with the Bears as a free agent in 2010. In his first two seasons in Chicago, he racked up just three interceptions and 17 passes defended. So to suddenly explode with nine picks and 21 passes defended in your seventh season, some might call that a fluke.
But Jennings has always been a solid player for the Bears, despite his lack of coverage statistics. He beat out both Bowman and Hayden in consecutive seasons because he's a tough, confident player who plays bigger than his size (5-8, 185) and is solid against the run. That has stayed constant in spite of his ups and downs in coverage. So no matter how he fares against the pass in 2013, he'll never be a liability.
Yet his confidence is the biggest reason Jennings will succeed this season and return to the Pro Bowl. By having to repeatedly earn his job, the diminutive player carried a huge chip on his shoulder heading into last season. It was that chip that gave him the impetus to raise his game to another level. That in turn has provided him with a ton of confidence, something a Bears corner must have considering the gauntlet of top-tier wide receivers just in the NFC North alone.
The coaching staff is no longer questioning his ability and he knows he can play like one of the best in the league. When you add in the fact Jennings rarely has to face the opposing team's top receiver – that duty is left up to Tillman – there's no reason to believe he can't build on last year's outstanding campaign.
Why Jennings won't repeat
After interceptions in the first three games last season, Jennings' remaining five picks came in just three games, with a high percentage of those coming off passes tipped in the air by his teammates. And his game-winning pick-six in Week 8 against the Carolina Panthers, that was the result of Steve Smith slipping and falling. Jennings made some really nice plays last season but to say that he was fortunate is an understatement.
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And he faded down the stretch, which included missing two games in Weeks 14 and 15 due to a shoulder injury. In his final five starts, Jennings had just three total passes defended and one interception. According to Pro Football Focus, Jennings gave up five touchdowns in 2012, which was the most of any player on the roster last season, and his seven missed tackles were tops for Bears corners.
He did a lot of good last season and earned all of his accolades but Jennings was far from perfect and still has a lot of room for improvement.
The wild card here is Jennings' contract situation. He's entering the final year of his two-year deal and will be 30 years old in December. He'll be playing for the last big contract of his career, which could go either way for him. If he can use that as motivation, there's a chance he'll approach last year's numbers. But if the pressure of following up last year's performance, as well as having to earn a new contract, starts to weigh on him, a second trip to the Pro Bowl won't be in the cards.
Most likely, Jennings will land somewhere in the middle, with a solid but unspectacular performance. But that's nothing to scoff at, as his skill set will be very valuable whether or not he's picking off passes at a steady clip. His leadership, toughness and ability in run support will again make him a valuable member of Chicago's defense, just don't expect him to again light the world on fire or you might be disappointed.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.