Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher formed one of the better cornerback combos in the NFC for quite a while there, but both are coming off injury-plagued campaigns that seriously challenged the depth chart.
Tillman battled a pair of bad shoulders but still found a way to start 15 of 16 games, cementing his reputation as one of the toughest players on the team regardless of position – he's now intercepted at least three passes in four straight seasons. Vasher, on the other hand, missed 12 games in 2007 because of a bum groin and then eight in '08 thanks to nagging hand and thumb trouble. Third-year pro Corey Graham played well when given the chance and is a much better fit physically for the Cover 2 than Vasher ever was, although Vasher remains the starter opposite Tillman while Graham shifted all over the place during the offseason program.
Danieal Manning's career as a safety appears to be history as he's now nothing more than a nickel back and kick returner, and he might not even be a nickel back any longer since Graham got some time there the last week or two of OTAs.
Reasons to be Optimistic
Few teams have a pair of corners more experienced in big games than Chicago does with Tillman and Vasher, especially when both of them are totally healthy and operating at full capacity.
Tillman is a perfect match for the Cover 2, which takes advantage of his 6-1, 196-pound frame and has helped him make no fewer than 76 tackles every year since 2005 – he also forces fumbles as well as any corner in the league. Although Vasher lacks size at 5-10 and 187, he's an instinctual player in coverage who used to be known as "The Interceptor" before battling injuries ever since Super Bowl XLI. Should Manning hold on to his job in the nickel package, he'll only get better since he started to make plays at that complicated position toward the end of this past season.
Tillman battled shoulder problems last season.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Causes for Concern
While neither Tillman (28 years old) nor Vasher (27) is over the hill by any stretch of the imagination, they're not as young as they used to be – and neither ever offered much in terms of flat-out speed anyway.
The Cover 2 is demanding on corners because they're asked to be physical at the line of scrimmage, as opposed to other systems that mostly want them to run stride-for-stride and one-on-one with receivers downfield. This at least partially explains why both Tillman and Vasher have been beaten up so much recently, with Tillman being able to play through the pain more often than not but Vasher unable to go. If the pass rush up front simply doesn't improve and force enemy passers to make quicker decisions with the ball, the Bears aren't a good enough coverage team to pick up the slack.
Safety is not expected to be a position of strength this season with Mike Brown now in Kansas City, which could put even more pressure on the corners.
The secondary as a whole is riddled with questions for the Monsters of the Midway. In terms of the corners, Vasher is the most important cog in the wheel right now. While he doesn't need to be a Pro Bowler again like he was back in 2005, he does need to stay on the field and solidify his spot opposite Tillman. If he fails, then Bowman may have to pick up the slack. Vasher is not suited to play the nickel, meaning he will be borderline useless if he can't hold down a starting job anymore.
The best thing that can happen to Vasher and give him a fighting chance is the pass rush from the front four improving dramatically.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.