Like nearly every position on the defense last year, the injury bug hit the Chicago Bears cornerbacks hard, not in quantity – only one corner was injured last year – but in quality. When two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman went down in Week 10 with a triceps injury, it appeared the secondary was on the verge of collapse. Every other positional group on Chicago's defense crumbled once injuries started to take hold, yet the cornerbacks held steady, due in large part to the play of Tim Jennings.
Despite a nonexistent pass rush and a pair of undisciplined safeties on the back end, the Bears still managed to finish in the top half of the league against the pass (15th). That stat is skewed some by the club's 32nd-ranked run defense, which never forced opposing offenses to air it out, but the stability provided by the corners out wide was the only thing that kept Chicago's defense from truly crumbling like a house of cards.
Let's break down the play of each individual Bears corner from 2013, a group that could feature significant turnover this offseason.
When the Pro Bowl rosters were first announced, many Bears fans and analysts wondered how receiver Alshon Jeffery could be left off the team. The chorus was loud in defense of Jeffery – who was eventually named to the roster in place of the injured Calvin Johnson – yet a smaller contingent was questioning why Jennings wasn't voted to his second straight Pro Bowl.
It was going to be hard for Jennings to replicated his 2012 campaign, in which he was named an All Pro and Pro Bowl starter after leading the league in interceptions (9) and passes defended (21). As expected his numbers were down last year (4 interceptions, 13 passes defended) but it can be argued that Jennings actually had a better season in 2013.
He had just four picks, yet he picked up 111 return yards on those picks, six more than he had following nine picks in 2012. He also returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns, which is twice as many scores as he had last year. In 2012, he gave up five touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Last season, he allowed just two touchdowns. His catch percentage in 2013 (54.0) nearly matched his 2012 catch percentage (52.9), and the same goes for his average yards per catch (12.3 in 2012 and 12.8 in 2013).
Opposing quarterbacks had a 68.2 passer rating when throwing at Jennings last year, which was the lowest rating of any corner on the team, and 30 points lower than Tillman. Jennings' 13 passes defended led the club, while he also added two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery, and finished fifth on the team in total tackles – 57, which were three fewer than he had in 2012.
And Jenning played his best football after Tillman was injured. In Weeks 14-16, Jennings held Dez Bryant to two catches for 12 yards, Josh Gordon to three catches for 67 yards and DeSean Jackson to four catches for 29 yards. Those were three of the best receivers in the NFL last year – Gordon led the league in receiving yards – and Jennings stymied each one.
Outside of interceptions, Jennings last season matched or bested his numbers from 2012. And let's reiterate this one more time: he did this all with almost no help around him. It's one thing to make plays when you've got a healthy Tillman, Brian Urlacher, Henry Melton, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers playing around you. It's another accomplishment all together to do it amidst Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene, Shea McClellin, Landen Cohen, Zack Bowman and two of the most inconsistent safeties in the league.
The Pro Bowl voters may not have taken notice of Jennings' performance in 2013 but Bears brass certainly did. A week after the campaign ended, the soon-to-be 31-year-old was rewarded with a four-year, $22.8 million contract, with $11.8 million guaranteed. It's the type of deal typically given to players five years younger than Jennings but he certainly earned it the past two seasons.
Tillman started eight games last year before the triceps injury ended his season, yet he only finished four contests. He dealt with multiple lingering leg issues throughout the year before being placed on IR, and his numbers suffered accordingly. Per PFF, he allowed seven touchdowns compared to just two passes defended, while opposing quarterbacks tallied a 98.1 passer rating when throwing at him. Receivers averaged 15.0 yards per catch on balls thrown at Tillman, which was the highest YPC total amongst the team's corners.
Yet even though he struggled in coverage, Tillman was still his usual self in the turnover department. In just 438 snaps last year he caused six turnovers – three interceptions and three forced fumbles – which tied him with Jennnigs for the most total takeaways on the team.
Tillman turns 33 in February and will soon be a free agent. He admitted a few weeks ago that he's unsure if he'll return to Chicago, or the NFL, next season. He's been one of the faces of the franchise since the Bears selected him in the second round of the 2003 draft but it's very possible he's played his last snap as a member of the Monsters of the Midway. That said, if the Bears can fit him under the salary cap with a discounted contract, a healthy Tillman surely has at least one more good season in him.
Frey, the club's 2012 sixth-round pick, spent his rookie year on the practice squad but broke out during training camp this year. When nickelback Kelvin Hayden was placed on IR due to a hamstring injury, the team didn't hesitate to make Frey the starter.
While Frey flashed some serious playmaking potential, he struggled in his first year as the club's starting nickel. Opposing quarterbacks had a 113.3 passer rating against Frey, while receivers caught 76.1 of passes thrown in his direction, both of which were worst amongst Chicago's corners. He also failed to pick off a pass, force a fumble or sack a quarterback, despite being blitzed more than any other cornerback on the team.
Frey played like a rookie last year but the experience he got in his second season should accelerate his learning curve going forward.
Bowman was very impressive in training camp and was a quality member of the cornerback rotation in place of Tillman. Bowman had seven passes defended and three interceptions, both of which were second most on the team, and allowed just one touchdown, per PFF. Opposing quarterbacks tallied a 70.3 passer rating when throwing at Bowman, which was just two points higher than Jennings and 28 points lower than Tillman.
Bowman is only 29 and could be in the club's short-term plans if Tillman isn't retained. At the very least, Bowman would serve well as a one- or two-year placeholder until the club can find a young, shutdown cornerback in the draft.
2013 Bears CB Grade: B-
Jennings was outstanding for his second straight season and will anchor the secondary for at least the next two seasons. Frey will get another shot at earning the nickelback role next season and, if he learns from his mistakes last year, could develop into a quality starter.
Whether or not Tillman returns, the Bears have to start looking for a cornerstone cornerback in one of the upcoming drafts. The team should be fine at the position for one more year but now is the time to start thinking about 2015 and beyond.
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.