For the foreseeable future, competing in the NFC North will require top-notch cornerbacks. When six of your 16 games include tilts against Calvin Johnson, Aaron Rodgers or the emerging Cordarrelle Patterson, defensive consistency out wide is a must.
Luckily for the Chicago Bears, the team boasts two Pro Bowl starting cornerbacks. Yet for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a new first rounder at the position, there are a number of question marks surrounding the club’s corners heading into the 2014 campaign.
With OTAs and minicamps in the books, let’s break down in detail the Bears cornerbacks heading into training camp and the preseason.
Charles Tillman tested the free-agent market this offseason, even making a trip to Tampa Bay to visit his old coach Lovie Smith. Yet the market wasn’t fruitful for a 33-year-old corner coming off an injury-shortened campaign in which he dealt with leg and arm issues, eventually landing on IR with a triceps malady.
He may be in the twilight of his career and susceptible to injury but when healthy, Tillman can still hang with the best of them. He continues to be a turnover machine, forcing three fumbles and intercepting three passes last year in eight games played, most of which were shortened by injury.
Tillman’s biggest issue in 2014 will be staying on the field, as his body appears to be undergoing the mid-30s breakdown countless players experience. If he can stay off the injury report, Tillman should once again serve as a consistent, turnover-producing No. 1 corner for the Bears.
The Bears spend a first-round pick on Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller, whom most assumed would serve as the club’s slot corner his rookie year. Yet it was revealed early in OTAs that Tim Jennings, and not Fuller, would be playing nickelback.
The plan this year is to start Jennings and Tillman in base sets. When the club uses its nickel package, Jennings will slide inside and Fuller will line up out wide. For Jennings – a diminutive player (5-8, 185) whose been forced to earn every inch of playing time throughout his career – this is just one more challenge for him to overcome.
Yet this shouldn’t be a tough hill to climb, as Jennings lined up in the slot for the Indianapolis Colts his first four years in the league. That said, shifting roles back and forth each game will force Jennings to learn two positions, with different responsibilities for each. This could lead to some missed assignments, particularly early in the campaign.
Kyle Fuller has the length and toughness to play wide corner in the NFL. His skill set should be ideal for the position but it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll perform once the games matter. Is he going to crumble the first time he’s lined up in man coverage against Calvin Johnson or will he rise to the challenge?
The answer to that question will be key in the success of Chicago’s defense this year.
Fuller worked mainly with the first team in sub packages throughout OTAs and minicamp. He took occasional reps with the second team but that was mainly to get him more action during practice. The coaching staff has handed him this role and will ride the Fuller ship throughout 2014.
From his collegiate tape, Fuller showed outstanding athleticism and speed, and was arguably the best tackler of any secondary player in this year’s draft. If he can be the physical player for the Bears he was for Virginia Tech, he’ll make an immediate, positive impact on defense.
Yet Fuller also showed a tendency to sit on short and intermediate routes, which left him vulnerable to the deep pass. It was something we saw on occasion during the last month of practices as well. When Fuller is on the field, expect the Bears to roll safety help over the top.
The Bears re-signed Kelvin Hayden this offseason to a one-year deal. It will be money well spent if any of the three starters go down with injury, as Hayden has experience at each position. He’ll serve as the primary backup to Jennings, Tillman and Fuller, and will also come on the field in dime sets. He’s not a lock-down corner but Hayden is a solid nine-year veteran who has a lot of value as a backup.
Last year’s starting nickelback, Isaiah Frey, has tumbled down the depth chart this season. He took most of his reps with the third team in OTAs and minicamp, occasionally getting slot reps with the second team. The former sixth rounder struggled at times last year, so he’ll need to have another strong training camp if he wants to secure his spot as the club’s fifth corner.
Frey doesn’t contribute on special teams, which will make his bid for a roster spot much harder. On the other hand, Sherrick McManis is a core member of nearly every special teams unit. McManis isn’t much of a cover cornerback but he has a lot of value for the club’s third phase.
The training camp roster rounds out with Demontre Hurst, Derricus Purdy, C.J. Wilson and Al Louis-Jean. Of the four, Hurst has the most potential. He was dominant in rookie minicamp and made a number of plays with both the second and third team during OTAs. If Hurst shines in camp and the preseason, he could catch on as the team’s sixth corner, although the practice squad seems likeliest.
The Bears are sturdy at cornerback and have decent depth. This unit has been the strength of the defense for a couple of years now and that won’t change this season.
Health is a concern, particularly with Tillman, but with Hayden waiting in the wings – as well as Frey, who played in all 16 games last year – Chicago has enough depth and experience to weather any potential injuries.
In 2015 and beyond, GM Phil Emery will have his work cut out rebuilding this unit for the long-term, particularly if Tillman retires after this season. Yet in the short-term, the Bears 2014 cornerbacks should continue to perform at a very high level.
And if Fuller develops quickly, this group could be one of the best in the NFC.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in 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.