The Chicago Bears are a team in transition, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
For two seasons, the Bears, a once-proud defensive franchise, have floundered at or near the bottom of the league.
When free agency begins on March 10, the new regime will begin rebuilding the defense from, for all intents and purposes, the ground up.
The front seven will likely undergo wholesale changes, as the current 4-3 personnel is ill-suited for coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 front.
Yet there are also serious concerns about the cornerback position. In fact, Bears brass are in the market for two new starting corners, despite needs along the defensive line and at linebacker.
Charles Tillman has likely played his last snap in the NFL, while Tim Jennings, who regressed in 2014, is 31 years old and has no guaranteed money in his contract beyond this season.
Last year’s first-round pick Kyle Fuller has the potential to be a starter in the NFL but he’s not there yet. Last season, he graded the second worst corner in the entire league by Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Fuller may develop into a competent cornerback but based solely on his performance as a rookie, it’s easy to see why head coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace want to upgrade.
The Bears re-signed youngsters Demontre Hurst and Al Louis-Jean earlier this offseason but neither is starter-worthy. Hurst, the club’s nickelback in the second half of 2014, allowed 33 receptions on 38 passes attempts against, per PFF. Those aren’t foundation numbers.
Sherrick McManis has upside but he’ll soon be a free agent and may never develop into anything further than top-tier special teams player.
In reality, the Bears are just as thin at cornerback as they are along the front seven. So when free agency begins next week, don’t be surprised if Pace and Fox are aggressive in pursuing a pair of long-term starting corners.
With that in mind, let’s break down the top cornerbacks that will soon hit the open market.
Chris Culliver (6-0, 199) Age: 27
Culliver missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL but bounced back in a big way last season, his first as a full-time starter. He allowed a 50.7 completion percentage and had 14 passes defended. Culliver is a 27-year-old cover corner who excels in man sets and played three seasons under Fangio in San Francisco. He’s familiar with the system and he’s about to enter his prime. He’ll have plenty of suitors but if the Bears are aggressive, the Fangio factor should be enough to bring him to the Windy City.
Brandon Flowers (5-9, 187) Age: 29
Flowers played very well on a one-year, prove-it deal for the Chargers last season. He had 10 pass defended, three interceptions and allowed a 56.0 completion percentage, with opposing QBs throwing for an 84.2 passer rating against. Flowers, who gave up four touchdowns last season (per PFF), is a small corner in the same mold as Jennings. He’d be a decent pickup but considering he’s on the precipice of 30, and his potential price tag, the Bears might be better off looking elsewhere.
Antonio Cromartie (6-2, 210) Age: 31
Cromartie is one of the best man-to-man cornerbacks in the league. He’s tall, long and physical, and can easily serve on an island in Fangio’s man-heavy system. His skill set would be ideal in Chicago as the club’s No. 1 cornerback. Cromartie is 31 but he’s missed just one game in his career and showed no signs of slowing down in Arizona last year. He’ll command a substantial contract but as a short-term, shut-down option, Cromartie would fit well in Chicago.
Byron Maxwell (6-1, 207) Age: 27
Maxwell replaced Brandon Browner in Seattle last season, his first as a full-time starter, and responded with two interceptions and 12 pass breakups. In addition, he allowed just one touchdown in 71 pass attempts against, which is very good. He’s a big corner who has worked in the Seahawks’ physical system his entire career. At just 27 years old, Maxwell is well worth pursuing for a long-term deal.
Kareem Jackson (5-10, 188) Age: 27
Jackson is a very talented cornerback who plays well in both man and zone sets. He’s good for 2-3 interceptions each season and roughly 10 PBUs. While not spectacular, Jackson is about as solid a cornerback as there is in the NFL. Yet there are concerns about his motivation, as he played most of 2013 overweight, which resulted in his only interception-less campaign. He lost those pounds last year and again performed at a high level, but how dedicated will he be after finally cashing in on the open market?
Walter Thurmond III (5-11, 190) Age: 28
Thurmond, who played his first four NFL seasons in Seattle, is one of the better slot corners in the league. Unfortunately, he just cannot stay healthy. He’s never played a 16-game campaign in his career, and missed all but two games last year with the Giants because of a chest injury. He’ll come cheap due to his injury history and could be a steal if he stays healthy, but that might not be a risk the Bears, who have dealt with countless defensive injuries the past two years, are willing to take.
Tarell Brown (5-11, 190) Age: 30
During a three-year span as a starter under Fangio in San Francisco, Brown racked up a whopping 39 pass breakups. He struggled some in Oakland last year but that was hardly his own doing, as the Raiders were horrible in 2014. Brown is 30 but he can still play and his experience in Fangio’s system would be very valuable to a secondary in transition.
Zack Bowman (6-1, 196) Age: 30
Bowman played six years in Chicago before signing a one-year deal with the Giants last season, where he excelled in a part-time role. Consider this: Bowman allowed a 36.1 completion percentage (13 completions on 36 targets) and a 75.1 QB rating against. That’s outstanding. Bowman is a long cornerback who struggled at times with the Bears, yet always showed flashes of potential. Pace could do a lot worse than bringing back Bowman, who is also a quality special-teams player.
Tramon Williams (5-11, 191) Age: 32
When Jay Cutler has nightmares, they usually include Williams, who has feasted on Chicago’s mistake-prone quarterback the last six seasons. Williams is a playmaking corner who shows up in big games, yet his age and the fact he allowed eight touchdowns and had a 101.7 QB rating against last season are cause for concern.
Perrish Cox (6-0, 190) Age: 28
Cox started opposite Culliver under Fangio in San Francisco last year. Cox racked up five interceptions and 17 passes defended. There are concerns about him being a one-year wonder, as he did very little in his career previous, yet his familiarity with Chicago’s new defense carries value. If the Bears can’t land Culliver, Cox would make a nice consolation prize.
Patrick Robinson (5-11, 191) Age: 27
Robinson is an underrated corner whose arrow is pointing up. He had 34 PBUs and seven interceptions in 2011 and 2012 combined. He missed all but two games in 2013 but bounced back last year, giving up just one touchdown on 51 targets, per PFF. In addition, he has experience out wide and in the slot. Pace is very familiar with Robinson, who is just now entering his prime. He’d be a solid, low-cost option for the Bears.
Rashean Mathis (6-1, 195) Age: 35
Mathis is still a very dependable cornerback despite his age. Yet the wheels are bound to fall off soon. Still, if the Bears miss out on the other big-name corners in free agency, Mathis might be worth a one-year deal.
Darius Butler (5-10, 188) Age: 29
Butler is a career nickelback who has great quickness in the slot. He’s always dealing with injuries but when he’s on the field, he plays well. Butler is worth a look as a potential nickel in Chicago.
THE PICK: Chris Culliver
Not only is Culliver one of the top cornerbacks on the market, not only is he entering his prime, not only does he have the skill set to replace Tillman, but Culliver also knows Fangio’s defense like the back of his hand.
The new system in Chicago will require many fundamental changes in personnel, technique and overall schematics. That type of shift doesn’t happen overnight and if the Bears want to have success in 2015, it will help greatly to have a player or two who have previously worked under Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell. Those players can ease the learning curve, which could be substantial for a current roster that was built under a 4-3 premise.
With Culliver, the Bears get a young, shutdown corner that Fangio can simply plug into his defense. Culliver provides a talent upgrade and could also be an on-field teacher for a developing secondary. The same can be said for Cox, albeit to a lesser extent.
If the Bears don’t want to break the bank on Culliver, Tarell Brown makes a lot of sense for many of the same reasons. He’s only 30 and played three seasons under Fangio. His leadership would pay dividends and he’s still got plenty of good football left in him.
And if all else fails, bring back Zack Bowman, who has gotten better with age and also provides a big boost on special teams.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.