- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is the ninth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free-agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
The Bears find themselves in the midst of conducting yet another search for a potential starter at cornerback opposite Charles Tillman, a nine-year veteran coming off his first Pro Bowl season.
The three most viable candidates -- Tim Jennings, Zack Bowman, and Corey Graham -- are all set to become unrestricted free agents, and there’s a strong possibility none will return to the club for 2012. Besides that, aside from Graham -- who never received much of an opportunity at corner, but played nickel -- Jennings and Bowman never emerged as potential long-term solutions at the position despite multiple opportunities.
Starting 28 games opposite Tillman, Jennings played well in 2010 and a good portion of 2011 before the team benched him in favor of Bowman late in the season. So it’s believed the team wants to explore the free-agent market or NFL draft for a potential starter at cornerback.
The Bears finished 28th last season against the pass, surrendering 354.1 yards per game but ranked in the top 10 (tied for sixth) with 20 interceptions. The cornerbacks contributed 12 of those picks, with nickel corner D.J. Moore intercepting four passes to lead the team, followed by Tillman and Graham with three apiece and Jennings -- who dropped several potential INTs -- with two.
Given Green Bay’s prowess in the passing game and the ascension of the Detroit Lions, led by Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the Bears need to load up with the pass rush and coverage on the back end. Bears coach Lovie Smith said most of the team’s personnel decisions are based upon how players match up with division rivals.
“You mention a guy like [Calvin] Johnson ... I like big corners anyway to match up against some of those guys,” Smith said. “I definitely don’t think we need a complete overhaul by any means.”
Still the team -- given the likelihood of multiple free-agent departures -- needs to replenish some talent at cornerback.
THE CURRENT ROSTER
• Charles Tillman: Scored two of the team’s six defensive touchdowns last season and played a significant role in the team ranking eighth in opponent passer rating (79.3). Tillman set a franchise record in 2011, by returning his fifth INT for a touchdown and also forced four fumbles on the way to being selected to his first Pro Bowl. With eight INTs since 2010, Tillman is tied with teammate D.J. Moore for the most picks in the NFL in that span. Smith said Tillman played the most disciplined football of his career in 2010, and only followed that up with a stronger 2011 campaign. Set to enter his 10th season, Tillman doesn’t appear to be declining.
• Tim Jennings: Tied for second on the team with eight pass breakups and started 15 of 16 games. Started the season with a 10-tackle effort in the opener, and played fairly well over the first 12 games. Towards the end of the season, Jennings’ play declined somewhat, leading to the club benching him for the Christmas matchup at Green Bay. An unrestricted free agent, Jennings will draw some interest on the open market for teams in search of a boundary corner. So his return to Chicago seems unlikely.
• Zack Bowman: Started 12 games in 2009, and led the team with a career-high six INTs but lost a training camp battle with Jennings for the starting job in 2010. The team held high hopes that Bowman could bounce back and win back his job in 2011, but that never transpired. An unrestricted free agent, Bowman started one game in 2011 and finished the season with six tackles and one pass breakup. Because of his size (6-1, 196 pounds) and youth, Bowman should also generate some interest in free agency. A change of scenery might prove beneficial.
• Corey Graham: One of the best special-teams performers in the league, Graham earned his first Pro Bowl appearance last season by leading the team with 22 special-teams tackles. Graham is tied for third in the NFL since 2007 with 75 stops on special teams. But it appears the team has pigeonholed him in the role of a special teamer. So the unrestricted free agent will want a legitimate opportunity elsewhere to contribute on defense. Filling in for D.J. Moore at the nickel spot, Graham intercepted passes in three consecutive games from Nov. 13 to Nov. 27.
• D.J. Moore: Led the team in interceptions (4) and tied for second in the team with eight pass breakups despite missing three games because of an ankle injury. Moore has now intercepted eight passes over the past two seasons and is pretty much cemented into that nickel corner role. Moore is set to enter the final year of his original rookie contract, and needs a strong 2012 to cash in.
• Josh Moore: A fifth-round pick by the Bears in 2010, Moore played three games as a rookie but surprisingly was cut in September. The Bears brought Moore back to the practice squad in November, and former GM Jerry Angelo said the team never wanted to cut him. But the cornerback became a victim of the numbers game. Moore is actually one of the team’s best pure cover corners, but still needs to acclimate to the pro game to receive a real shot at making a contribution in 2012.
Bears free agents: Bowman, Graham, Jennings
POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT TARGETS
WHY CARR OR GRIMES MAKE SENSE
New general manager Phil Emery knows both Carr, pictured on the left, and Grimes extremely well, which makes them logical options. Emery played a role in bringing Grimes to Atlanta in 2006 as an undrafted free agent, and the GM spent time with Carr in Kansas City.
One potential problem with Grimes is his lack of size (5-10, 183 pounds). Smith prefers bigger corners. But Grimes has extensive experience playing in a system very similar to the one utilized by the Bears, and possesses one of the traits the team covets most: he’s aggressive in run support.
Carr (6-0, 207 pounds) is arguably the best corner available on the free-agent market. But his asking price will likely be way more than what the Bears would be willing to pay. Sure the team has plenty of room under the cap to bring aboard a high-priced player such as Carr. But the Bears typically don’t spend big money in free agency on corners. Besides that, Carr is considered more of a man corner; although it’s likely he wouldn’t have any problems playing in a more zone-oriented scheme.
While Carr or Grimes would make sense given their histories with Emery, don’t count out the Bears pushing hard to re-sign one of their own free agents such as Bowman or Tillman and adding to the position through the draft. The latter likely isn’t the team’s first choice, but could turn into Plan B depending on what transpires around the league.
With several free agents, the Bears need to replenish some talent at cornerback.