If there is one player that holds the key to the entire Midway Monster secondary for this coming season, it's veteran cornerback Nathan Vasher.
The former Texas Longhorn burst onto the scene as a rookie despite only being a fourth-round selection in the 2004 NFL Draft, working his way into the starting lineup and picking off five balls. He was better his second year in the league, registering career-highs in tackles with 48, interceptions with eight, and passes defensed with 16. He also forced a pair of fumbles and scored one of the most amazing touchdowns you'll ever see, returning an errant 52-yard field goal attempt from San Francisco's Joe Nedney 108 yards to paydirt – he earned a berth in the Pro Bowl for his efforts.
However, ever since signing a five-year, $28 million contract extension, Vasher has battled a troublesome groin injury that cost him 12 games in 2007 and then hand and thumb problems that put him on the shelf for eight games in '08. And even when he was healthy enough to play, he was no factor at all defending the run and hasn't been very effective in coverage either – "The Interceptor" has only come up with two INTs since Super Bowl XLI. As a matter of fact, many experts feel the Bears would be wise to continue starting Corey Graham opposite Charles Tillman, as he's a much more physical player and a better fit for the Cover 2.
Vasher is going to be on the 53-man roster in 2009 because it would cost Chicago $4.8 million in dead cap space to cut or trade him, but he has no value to the team unless he starts because he's not built to handle the role of a nickel back.
Bears officials had a formal interview with Iowa's Bradley Fletcher at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, perhaps a sign that Vasher's time is limited, so Jon Miller of HawkeyeNation.com drops by with his insider's perspective on Fletcher.
Miller Says: Fletcher is not known as a lock-down guy from the snap, so teams will test him. However, when they do, they need to be very precise because he showed quite a knack for being able to make a play by the time the football arrived at the receiver. He also proved to be a sure tackler, a must in Iowa's Cover-2 scheme. While his strength surprised me at the combine, I still think he can stand to get stronger in his upper body. Then again, I remember meeting him as a senior in high school, and he was so thin that I wondered how he would ever get playing time. This is a weakness he is overcoming already, so that is a good thing. He is familiar with the Cover 2 and also quarters coverage that Iowa employs. The Hawkeyes play very little man-to-man.
JC's Take: While I do believe the Bears would love to say farewell to Vasher and move on with youngsters like Graham, Trumaine McBride and Zack Bowman, they simply can't do it because of the salary-cap ramifications.
Vasher will be given every possible opportunity to win his job back at right corner, but he'll face a strong challenge from the bigger and stronger Graham. The loser will have a tough time getting on the field, with Danieal Manning entrenched as the nickel back and playing quite well there down the stretch this past year. Head coach Lovie Smith was adamant that Tillman isn't moving to free safety since he's still the best corner on the team, so perhaps Bowman is in line for a position switch – maybe we'll see that happen during veteran minicamp Mar. 17-19 at Halas Hall.
As far as Fletcher is concerned, he shares many of the same traits – physically, most of all – Tillman and Graham bring to the table, and general manager Jerry Angelo always looks for more secondary help on draft weekend.
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Insider Analysis: CB Bradley Fletcher
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