Sports

Bears analysis: In the market for cornerbacks

FootballChicago BearsSoldier FieldLovie SmithCorey GrahamCharles TillmanZack Bowman

6th in a 10-part series

Charles Tillman could not say his ninth NFL season was his best and it very well might not be. After a while, they're hard to sort through when you've been a consistent performer.

But the veteran cornerback was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time following a year in which he was steady throughout and did a solid job vs. Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the second meeting of the season at Soldier Field.

Tillman isn't the best man cover cornerback in the NFL. But he's a physical performer who has been an ideal fit for the Cover-2 scheme ever since Lovie Smith arrived. Tillman finished third on the team in tackles with a career-high 113, and was second in solo tackles with 83, trailing leader Lance Briggs by only three. It was only the third time Tillman has topped 100 tackles.

Across from Tillman, Tim Jennings put together a solid first half of the season and then his play slipped in the final month-plus, leading to a benching in Week 16 against the Green Bay Packers when veteran Zack Bowman -- and the scheme of playing outside leverage -- was exposed badly. Jennings got his job back the following week and the starter opposite Tillman is a key decision for this offseason.

D.J. Moore, who stepped nicely into the nickel role in 2010, didn't build off of his first year of success. Moore was hampered by a sprained ankle that forced him to miss three games. Moore led the defense with four interceptions and tied for second with eight pass breakups but the team rotated him a little bit with Corey Graham down the stretch after Graham was successful replacing Moore while he was injured.

Roll call: Charles Tillman (signed through 2013), Tim Jennings (unrestricted free agent), Zack Bowman (unrestricted free agent), Corey Graham (unrestricted free agent), D.J. Moore (signed through 2012),

2011 review: The Bears finished 28th in the NFL in passing yards allowed at 254.1 yards per game but that is not indicative of how the team played. Could the pass defense improve? Sure. But consider the defense ranked 8th in the NFL in opponent's passer rating at 79.3. That shows that opponents didn't remain committed to the run and chose to throw the ball.

The Bears tied for sixth in the NFL with 20 interceptions, probably not the number Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli are happy with, but a solid showing. Certainly there were more plays to make and that was one of the knocks on Jennings, who dropped numerous interception opportunities.

It wasn't a perfect season for Tillman, though. Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson gave him problems during a Nov. 20 meeting at Soldier Field, putting up 165 yards and one touchdown on seven receptions. The cornerbacks also struggled against Carolina's Steve Smith – you've seen this happen previously -- as he had 181 yards on eight catches in an Oct. 2 game at Soldier Field.

There wasn't much change. Tillman started 16 games for the second straight season – the only two times it has happened in his career. Jennings has started 28 of the last 32 games.

Free agency/draft priority: Teams that use the Cover-2 as their base defense typically don't allocate a lot of their resources to the position. They look for physical players who are good tacklers. The Bears gave Tillman a nice contract in 2007 and paid former Pro Bowl performer Nathan Vasher. While the franchise has used eight draft picks on cornerbacks since Lovie Smith arrived in 2004, the highest was Devin Hester in 2006 and he remained at the position for a matter of months. Otherwise, there have been two fourth-rounders, three fifth-rounders and two seventh-rounders. Part of that is because Tillman has been a consistent performer and the team has used free agency to bolster the position with additions like Jennings and former nickel back Ricky Manning Jr. At this point, the position becomes a higher priority than usual. Jennings, Bowman and Graham are all entering free agency and Moore is headed into the final year of his contract. If Graham comes back, it will probably be as primarily a special teams performer because he seems to have been somewhat pigeonholed. In an ideal world, the Bears would add a young player who is ready to challenge for playing time and a veteran and create some depth. It looked like cornerback would be a need last season and it was passed over in the draft. The tough thing is, if you don't select one by the end of the second round, it becomes harder to get someone who can help.

Looking ahead: Tillman turns 31 next month and he's got a lot of football behind him with 130 regular-season games. He'll be in the mix in 2012 but the rest of the position is up for grabs. Moore lacks the speed to turn-and-run needed to play on the outside. There would also be concerns about him holding up in the running game out there, although he does a nice job for a nickel back. So, the team needs to add at least two cornerbacks to the mix and probably three. If they can upgrade over what Jennings has given them the last two seasons, that would be a plus, especially when they run into the Green Bay Packers twice next season.

Bottom line: The Bears will be in the market for cornerbacks in free agency and then the draft. Keep an eye on some bigger prospects that tackle well when it comes to the draft. It might be a good idea to take one in the first three rounds -- and the team has an extra third-round selection from the Greg Olsen trade.

Tuesday: Tight ends.

bmbiggs@tribune.com

Twitter @BradBiggs

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FootballChicago BearsSoldier FieldLovie SmithCorey GrahamCharles TillmanZack Bowman
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