Much of that had to do with the sub-par play of the team’s cornerbacks, who spiraled downhill after Charles Tillman was placed on injured reserve in Week 3. Tillman is now in Carolina, yet the front office did very little to bolster an extremely important position.
In the NFC North, top-tier cornerback play is a must due to the elite passing attacks of the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. If you don’t have a corner that can match up one-on-one with Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson, you’re in trouble.
In addition, new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio puts a premium on cover corners that can perform on an island. It’s safe to question whether the Bears have any such players on the current roster.
With that in mind, let’s analyze the cornerbacks that will be in Bourbonnais during 2015 Bears Training Camp.
Between 2011-2013, opposing quarterbacks had passer ratings of 68.8, 53.3 and 68.2 when throwing at Jennings, per Pro Football Focus (PFF). Last season he had 106.7 passer rating against and gave up five touchdowns without a single interception.
At 31 years old, it’s clear Jennings is on the tail end of his career. The two-time Pro Bowler appeared to lose a step last season and he’s no younger this year.
As a result, Jennings will serve as the club’s nickelback this season. He’ll likely get starter reps at boundary corner in base sets but in sub packages, Jennings will slide inside to the slot.
“Dimension-wise, he’s built like a nickel corner,” head coach John Fox said during OTAs. “He’s played it before.”
Jennings has limited experience at nickelback, having played there sparingly early in his career with the Indianapolis Colts. At 5-8, his body type and general quickness are traits you look for in a slot corner.
This scenario is nothing new for Jennings, who was in the exact same role during training camp last year. Yet that fell apart a week and a half into the season after Tillman tore his tricep, forcing Jennings back out wide permanently.
In all likelihood, this is Jennings’ last season in Chicago. He still has two more years on his contract beyond 2015 but there’s no more guaranteed money.
Jennings is still a decent NFL quarterback but he’s limited by his size, while age has sapped him of his speed and agility. He’s still an aggressive player who is strong against the run but, at this point in his career, he’s ideally suited for a part-time role.
After his first three NFL games last year, Fuller led the league with three interceptions and two forced fumbles. After that, the wheels fell off and the wagon went over the side of the cliff.
Each week he squared off against the opposing team’s No. 1 pass catcher and he was often taken behind the woodshed. Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson had outings of 10/108/2 and 6/152/2, while Detroit’s Calvin Johnson had games of 11/146/2 and 6/103/0. According to PFF, Fuller was the lowest-graded corner in the league last season in terms of coverage.
That’s saying something.
Yet the former first-round pick is far from a lost hope. He struggled at times his rookie year but there were solid outing upon which he can build. Fuller held Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans to 3/47/1, Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin to 3/38/0 and Dallas’ Dez Bryant to a relatively low 6/82/0.
In addition, Fuller’s poor play last year was due in large part to knee and ankle injuries that hounded him for nearly two months. In reality, he probably should have taken some time off to let his leg heal but at that point, there were no other viable options, so the Bears kept trotting Fuller onto the field with less-than-desirable results.
Fully healthy, Fuller is again slotted as the team’s No. 1 corner and has a chance to prove his rookie season was a fluke. Unfortunately, he was routinely beat by receiver Alshon Jeffery during off-season practices, which is slightly concerning.
Fuller was outstanding in training camp last year, so how he performs in Bourbonnais and the preseason this year will give us a much better idea if he can bounce back from a disappointing 2014 campaign.
The Bears are banking on Fuller to develop into Tillman’s replacement, one who can man up with the Johnsons and Nelsons of the NFC North. If he can ascend through August, then 2015 could be a strong year for him, but if his struggles continue during the preseason, we might have to lower our expectations for a once-promising talent.
The Bears signed Alan Ball to a one-year, $3 million contract this off-season. That’s starter money.
Yet Ball, who finished 2014 on injured reserve due to a dislocated shoulder, was not healthy to participate in minicamps or OTAs.
At 30 years old, Ball’s prolonged absence is concerning, as he’s already missed the essential installation phase of Fangio’s 3-4 defense. If he can’t get back on the field for the start of training camp, he’ll be pushed further behind.
That said, Ball has potential as a starting cornerback for the Bears. He’s big (6-2, 197) and experienced, and has the man coverage skills the team is looking for in a No. 2 boundary corner. With the Jaguars in 2014, he had a 51.2 catch percentage against and a 64.5 QB rating against, while in 15 starts in 2013 he had a 54.4 catch percentage against and a 75.3 QB rating against, per PFF.
Those are very solid numbers.
Additionally, Ball has experience as a starting safety in the NFL, adding versatility to his skill set. If he returns to action in the near future and performs well in the preseason, he’ll be in a good spot to claim a starting gig.
With Ball on the sidelines this off-season, McManis has taken the lion’s share of reps with the first team.
A five-year NFL veteran, McManis has been a core special teams player his whole career and has started just one game at cornerback. His inexperience on defense is a concern but McManis is a talented player who, at 27 years old, may finally be peaking as a cornerback.
Remember, he was the star of training camp last year before injuries made him an afterthought in the regular season. During OTAs and minicamp this year, McManis again looked very good.
At 6-1, 193, he has very good size to go along with good quickness and agility. He also tracks the ball well and has a knack for pass breakups. As a late bloomer, McManis could be one of the biggest defensive surprises of the season for the Bears.
“I think most good defensive players I’ve ever been associated with, that’s where they first got their break and that’s where they earned their keep so-to-speak is on special teams,” Fox said. “There’s a great carryover, performing well on special teams correlates pretty well to playing well on defense. He’s been a guy that’s caught my eye. He’s adapted well to Vic’s defensive schemes and we’ll see where that goes.”
McManis is a high-risk/high-reward defender due to his inexperience and upside. If finally offered full-time reps, there’s a chance he could excel on defense, particularly in man coverage. There’s also the possibility he’ll sink like a stone under the bright lights.
How much playing time he gets will be up to McManis during the preseason. If he gains the trust of the defensive coaching staff, combined with a lingering injury to Ball, don’t be surprised if McManis emerges as the No. 2 boundary corner in sub packages.
Porter was a starter for the Saints his first four years in the NFL but has bounced around the league since then and is now playing for his fourth different team in as many seasons.
His last full-time starting gig came in 2013 with the Raiders. In 16 starts he allowed a 66.0 catch percentage and a 93.7 NFL rating against, while giving up four touchdowns. Those aren’t great numbers.
In addition, Porter has dealt with injuries in recent seasons, which includes missing all but three games last year due to surgery on a torn labrum. The 28 year old is just 5-11, 188, so he doesn’t have the same height as the teammates he’ll be competing against in Bourbonnais.
Porter worked exclusively with the second team during off-season activities and has a steep hill to climb if he’s to earn a starting gig in Chicago. Going for Porter is his familiarity with Fox, for whom he played in Denver in 2012.
The Bears signed Porter late this off-season to add depth to the cornerback position but unless he shines in Bourbonnais and the preseason, he’ll likely serve as a primary backup.
A former undrafted free agent, Louis-Jean was elevated to the active roster in Week 6 last season and played 122 snaps on defense. He was thrown at 13 times and allowed 10 catches for a 152.6 QB rating against, per PFF.
That’s really bad.
Yet for Louis-Jean, it’s all about upside. At just 21 years old, there are many within the organization who feel the second-year player can one day develop into an NFL starter. He has ideal size (6-1, 187) but he’s very raw.
Still, Louis-Jean has shown flashes of playmaking ability the past two years. During OTAs, he rotated with McManis on the first team, which shows how highly Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell think of the youngster.
Louis-Jean is a work in progress and if called into duty, he’ll have as many bad games as good games. But his future is very bright. If he can turn the corner this season, there’s a good chance he’ll eventually earn field time on game days.
A stellar training camp and preseason will go a long way toward Louis-Jean securing a roster spot and, potentially, a role on defense.
Hurst was thrust into the starting nickelback role last season following Tillman’s injury. He posted 39 combined tackles, one pass breakup, one interception and one forced fumble. According to PFF, he allowed 33 receptions on 39 targets (84.6 percent) and had a 131.0 QB rating against.
Hurst has developed as a defender during his two years with the organization but he’s far from a finished product. The 24-year-old struggles mirroring receivers out of the slot and is an average run defender.
With Jennings moving into the slot, Hurst will need to be very good in August to keep his roster spot, otherwise he could be the odd man out.
Mitchell earned a spot on Chicago’s practice squad coming out of training camp last year, where he stayed until Week 6 before being waived. The Bears then re-signed him in Week 17.
At 5-11, 195, Mitchell is built like a nickel corner and has very good quickness and instincts. He made a number of plays during OTAs and is a frontrunner for a place on the practice squad.
If Mitchell shines in the preseason and shows value on special teams, it won’t be surprising if he claims one of the club’s final roster spots heading into the regular season.
These three undrafted rookies will be battling for a spot on the practice squad. Of the three, pay attention to Black during the preseason. He’s 6-1, 190 and showed well during off-season practices.
- Camp Preview: Inside Linebacker
- Camp Preview: Outside Linebacker
- Camp Preview: Defensive Line
- Camp Battle: Mundy vs. Vereen
- Camp Preview: Offensive Line
- Camp Battle: Ball vs. McManis
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.