Tillman was one of the constants – along with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs – during a prolonged stretch of defensive dominance under former head coach Lovie Smith. Yet Tillman played just 10 games in two seasons under Marc Trestman and 34-year-old is now playing in Carolina.
As such, the Bears will face the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 next week with an entirely different starting secondary compared to last year’s season opener.
In Week 1 against the Bills in 2014, Chicago lined up Tillman and Jennings out wide, with then-rookie Kyle Fuller coming on the field in sub packages, with Jennings sliding inside to nickelback. At safety were Mundy and Chris Conte, who now plays for the Buccaneers.
When the Bears’ secondary hits the field next Sunday, the secondary will consist of Fuller and Alan Ball at the boundary corner spots and Sherrick McManis in the slot. At safety, Antrel Rolle and rookie Adrian Amos will start.
“The team is not going to be the same from last year or the year before,” Ball said today. “Going forward, every step we take, we’re a new group no matter who’s out there. You’ve got to find your identity. So going forward we want to create our identity and step on the field week one and establish who we are.”
The Bears finished 30th in pass defense last season, while the secondary combined for 50 missed tackles. So in theory, putting five new starters in the secondary can only be a good thing.
“I think every year going in you want a new identity no matter where you are, no matter what guys you’ve got out there. You’re always searching for a new identity,” said Ball. “We’re doing it in practice piece by piece as a defense. But until we get out there week one and really do what we’ve got to do, that’s when you know who you are.”
While the secondary may be full of new faces but it’s debatable whether or not this group provides an upgrade over last year’s unit – which is a scary thought.
Following a rough rookie season, Fuller – whom Pro Football Focus graded the second worst cornerback in the NFL last season – continues to struggle and has been non-existent in the first three preseason games.
Ball is coming off ankle surgery, which forced him to miss all of OTAs and minicamp. Since then, he’s been wobbly at best and has yet to make a single play of note in either practice or the preseason.
In addition, Rolle looks like a player running on 32-year-old legs, McManis has never played in the slot and Amos has never played in an NFL contest.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” McManis said.
McManis is a lanky 6-1, which is taller than a typical nickelback, and has emerged as a viable man corner, after serving as a special-team-only player his entire career previous. McManis and Amos, who was one of the best cover safeties in college football last year, have upside but it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll perform as starters when the game matter.
The Bears have promising young backups in Terrance Mitchell and Demontre Hurst, who is taking more reps at safety than at cornerback, but neither should be relied on in the short term. And with Mundy out, only Brock Vereen – who has shown a disturbing lack of physicality in the preseason – has any NFL experience among the backup safeties.
Say what you will about Tim Jennings’ diminished output but he was one of the most experienced players on the roster, one whose veteran leadership would have had value for a team that could see some rough stretches in the near future.
“I can’t speak enough about Tim since he’s been here and since I’ve been here the help that he gave me and just being the type of guy that he is in the room. I think it’s beneficial to the whole group,” Ball said. “But that’s the business and that’s how it goes. I don’t make personnel decisions. As a group you just have to step up together because he is a hell of a player. We have to fill that void now that he’s gone. That’s part of the game and that’s how it goes.”
The new coaching staff’s desire to move in a different direction is understandable, especially coming off two highly disappointing campaigns. And having watched Jennings all off-season, it was obvious his best days are far behind him.
Yet Jennings leaves behind a Bears secondary littered with questions, the answers to which will be made clear when Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers come to Soldier Field in Week 1.
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.