When Lovie Smith was fired following a 10-6 campaign in 2012, Chicago Bears defensive players expressed their displeasure publicly, yet it was a fairly muted response. The reality is that every defender on that team, not named D.J. Moore, was extremely angry about Smith's departure. The team's stalwart veterans, players for whom Smith had been their only NFL head coach, put on a good face for the media but behind closed doors, they were very upset.
Since then, GM Phil Emery unceremoniously booted future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher out the door and the defense was hit with a rash of injuries not seen since the plague, setting 94-year franchise records in futility. Emery stated following the season that the defense needs to get younger, just a few minutes after announcing the re-signing of cornerback Tim Jennings.
So for Charles Tillman, who will hit free agency for the first time in his 11-year career on March 11, what incentive does he have to return to Chicago? He lost his coach, the defense is in shambles and the team already invested heavily in a younger cornerback. He'll test free agency and when you factor in Smith's new position as head coach in Tampa Bay, it's easy to understand why many believe Tillman has played his last snap in the Windy City.
If that were to happen, Emery would have to move quickly to find his replacement. Zack Bowman, who is also a free agent, played well last year but he's more of a backup than a long-term starter. Kelvin Hayden will also hit the open market and Isaiah Frey, who filled in at nickelback last season, is still a work in progress. Whether Tillman returns or not, the Bears still have serious needs at cornerback.
The team will surely look at some young corners in the draft but Emery will also be active in free agency as well. Let's break down the veteran cornerbacks who will soon hit the open market.
Financial Notes: The projected 2014 franchise tag for cornerbacks, the average of the top five paid players at the position, is $11.2 million. Per Spotrac.com, the 10th highest paid corner in the NFL, San Francisco's Carlos Rogers, is due $6.25 million next season, while the 20th highest paid corner, Detroit's Chris Houston, is due $3.5 million.
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Brent Grimes (5-10, 190) Age: 31
After missing all of 2012 with a torn Achilles, Grimes signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins last offseason and, after two injury plagued years, regained his previous form. He tallied four interceptions and earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl. He turns 31 in July, so age is a bit of a concern with Grimes, especially considering the dollar amount he'll soon command. Emery wants to get younger on defense, so Grimes may not be the best investment.
Vontae Davis (5-11, 204) Age: 26
Davis is arguably the best cornerback on the market and he's five years younger than Grimes. He's a lock-down corner who is adept in both man and zone sets. He has experience playing in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. Davis would be a perfect fit to pair with Jennings but his price tag may be too high for the Bears.
Sam Shields (5-11, 184) Age: 26
Shields has been a solid cover corner for the Packers for years. He had four interceptions last season, despite little help from the rest of Green Bay's secondary, and 17 pass breakups, which was Top 10 in the league. Shields is young, talented and still has room to improve, and he won't cost as much as Grimes or Davis. It would be one heck of a move if Emery could pry Shields away from a division rival.
Captain Munnerlyn (5-8, 195) Age: 26
Munnerlyn is a physical, play-making cornerback. The past two years starting in Carolina, he's tallied 21 pass breakups and four interceptions, each of which he returned for a touchdown. He has experience out wide and in the slot, and he turns just 26 in April. Munnerlyn would be a solid addition to Chicago's secondary.
Alterraun Verner (5-10, 187) Age: 25
Verner is one of the most athletic corners in the league. Many believe he has the potential to be the best in the NFL at his position. Yet he's inconsistent. He came blazing out of the gates the past two seasons only to fade down the stretch. When Verner is on, he's one of the toughest players in the game to throw at, but he's very beatable when he's off. If the price tag is too high, which is likely, the Bears will be forced to pass.
Aqib Talib (6-2, 202) Age: 28
When he's having a good day, Talib is arguably the best press corner in the league. He has the size, strength and athleticism to flat-out smother opposing wide receivers. But he's also a head case, one who can implode at any moment on and off the field. Talib is a skilled player but he's a headache and wouldn't be a good fit in Marc Trestman's locker room.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (6-2, 193) Age: 28
Rodgers-Cromartie can absolutely dominate when he wants to. He has a rare blend of size and speed, and can shut down the best receivers in the league. Yet he's wildly inconsistent, due mainly to a perceived lack of effort. He's as good as they get but he'll cost an arm and a leg, and could be franchised by the Broncos.
Nolan Carroll (6-1, 205) Age: 27
Carroll has Cover 2 size and can set the edge against the run. He struggled in coverage last year due to multiple injuries but he's a quality corner with upside.
Walter Thurmond (5-11, 190) Age: 27
Thurmond is one of the better slot corners in the league. He's adept in press coverage and has great instincts when the ball is in the air. He missed four games last year for violating the league's substance abuse policy (for marijuana) but beyond that, Thurmond would make a quality free-agent nickelback acquisition for the Bears.
Chris Cook (6-2, 212) Age: 27
Cook likes to hit women and referees, and still has nightmares about Alshon Jeffery. He can't cover or tackle and has zero interceptions, while missing 30 games due to injury, in four NFL seasons. Moving on.
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Tarell Brown (5-11, 190) Age: 29
After two seasons as a starter for the San Francisco 49ers, Brown lost his job last year due to injury. Yet he's still a very solid, underrated cornerback who is strong in coverage and against the run. Brown will land in a price range reasonable enough for the Bears, who would be wise to pursue the veteran.
Corey Graham (6-0, 196) Age: 29
Jerry Angelo didn't want to pay Graham but maybe Emery won't be as frugal. Graham is a quality nickel cornerback with experience out wide and in the slot. He has nine interceptions, 23 pass breakups and three forced fumbles the last three years combined. He's a diverse, valuable defender who won't break the bank.
Asante Samuel (5-10, 185) Age: 33
Samuel dealt with a lingering hamstring injury last year but was still effective when on the field. Just two years ago he had five interceptions and 19 pass breakups but age may be catching up with him. As a veteran leader on a one-year deal, one who could come in and mentor a high-round draft pick, Samuel makes sense for the Bears.
Jabari Greer (5-11, 180) Age: 32
Greer is a 10-year veteran who still has some game left in him. He was one of three players the Saints cut earlier this offseason to make room for Jimmy Graham's behemoth contract. Greer is inconsistent and somewhat injury prone but, like Samuel, he'd serve well for the Bears as an experienced player who can help the young guys for one season.
Terrell Thomas (6-0, 191) Age: 29
Thomas missed two full seasons with knee injuries in 2011 and 2012, and struggled at times last year. If his knees get healthier over the offseason, he could be a prime candidate for Chicago's nickelback role on a short-term, "prove it" deal. Thomas recently stated the NFL isn't ready for a gay player, so if the Bears sign him in free agency, that pretty much rules out Missouri prospect Michael Sam in the draft.
The Bears won't be in a position to spend heavily at cornerback. After finishing 32nd in the NFL against the run last season, the team has extremely pressing needs along the front seven. If Emery is going to spend big, it will likely be at a position along the defensive line.
As a result, Grimes, Davis, Rodgers-Cromartie, Verner and Talib may be out of Chicago's price range. In addition, the Packers have expressed strong interest in signing Shields to a long-term deal, so he may not be available either.
The next best option is Brown, who is an under-the-radar veteran that could provide solid, experienced all-around play at cornerback. He's physical in coverage and against the run. The 49ers invested in Tramaine Brock last season and he's projected to start next year, meaning Brown would have to accept a reduced rate to return to San Francisco as a backup. If the Bears throw him some money, Brown could be Chicago's starting corner for the next few seasons.
Captain Munnerlyn is a great slot option and reportedly the Panthers have not yet contacted him about a new deal, so he's likely to test the open market. He's a play-making nickelback who is stout against the run.
If all else fails, get Corey Graham's agent on the phone. We all know what he brings to the table. He could come in and start at nickelback immediately and would also be a big boost for Chicago's special teams.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth 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.