This is the ninth in a series of Bears position breakdowns by the Chicago Football staff leading up to the start of training camp July 25 in Bourbonnais. For more Bears and NFL coverage, visit ChicagoFootball.com.
Overview: The Bears are one of the only teams in the NFL that can boast two Pro Bowl cornerbacks as starters, but that’s what they have in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.
As if that wasn’t enough of an embarrassment of riches, they also used their first-round pick in the 2014 draft to grab another corner, Kyle Fuller out of Virginia Tech, the 14th player chosen overall.
Kelvin Hayden had an excellent season as the Bears' starting nickel in 2012 and returns this year after missing all of 2013 with a torn hamstring.
Hayden’s 2013 replacement at nickel, Isaiah Frey, is back as well, and he’s joined by returning veteran special-teams ace Sherrick McManis, practice squad players C.J. Wilson and Demontre Hurst and undrafted rookie free agents Al Louis-Jean and Derricus Purdy.
In many respects, Tillman is the key to the Bears' entire defense because of his unique abilities to take the football away and score points off turnovers. He is the best player in the NFL at forcing fumbles, including 10 in 2012, and he was playing at a Pro Bowl level when he was injured last year against the Redskins and forced to miss the second half of the season.
While last season was the first time since his second year in the league in 2004 that he missed more than two games, he turned 33 in February and there are questions about how much he has left.
With experienced nickels in Hayden and Frey ready for action, it’s curious the Bears have decided to move Jennings to the nickel after consecutive Pro Bowl seasons.
We can only assume it’s a strong comment on how certain the Bears seem to be they’ve found a gem in Fuller, who’s being given the other outside cornerback spot when the Bears go with three cornerbacks before ever playing a down in the league. At 6-foot-0, Fuller has 4 inches on Jennings to go head-to-head with the league’s new breed of long receivers, and Jennings, in spite of his lack of size, is probably the Bears' best run-stuffer in the secondary and should help the run defense at the nickel.
Position battles: Because the Bears spend so much time in the nickel, it’s uncertain how much dime defense they’ll play, but it appears to be the only spot left for Hayden, Frey, Hurst and Wilson.
With Jennings also in his 30s and Hayden over that hump, too, the Bears probably would love to develop Hurst, Wilson or one of their rookie free agents, but Hayden will be tough to beat for the dime and backup nickel spots if he’s healthy.
Contract situations: Jennings has a new four-year deal after testing free agency, but Tillman who was also a free agent this offseason got just one more year on his new deal. If Tillman stays healthy and returns to his form of 2012 and the first half of 2013, the Bears will have to re-sign him, and it’s unlikely he’d accept a second straight one-year offer.
Keep an eye on: We all know how hard it is for undrafted free agents to hang on, but both Wilson and Hurst did last year, and the Bears love the tangibles of Louis-Jean. At 6-1, 187, he’s got the length clubs are looking for these days on the corner, and I’m hearing he’ll be given every chance to claim the fifth cornerback spot. The Bears have carried six at times, but with their needs at safety and no clear answers, five safeties and five cornerbacks seems more likely out of training camp.
The other guy to watch is Tillman. If he gets banged up again or appears to have lost a step, it will make it extremely difficult for the secondary to take a big step forward over last season.