With veterans Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings coming off Pro Bowl seasons, cornerback is one of the Bears' strengths heading into the 2013 season.
Tillman, who turns 32 this month, is worth every penny of the $8 million ($7.950 million base salary, $50,000 workout bonus) he is scheduled to pocket next fall. In fact, the discussion should turn to whether Tillman deserves another contract extension sometime in the offseason. His numbers speak for themselves. Tillman tied for the single-season NFL record with 10 forced fumbles, while finishing second on the Bears in tackles (93) and passes broken up (15) and third in interceptions (3) -- Tillman's 33 career picks rank No. 3 in Bears history.
Jennings is also in line for a new deal after he led the league with a career-high nine interceptions, the second-highest single-season Bears' total behind only safety Mark Carrier's 10 interceptions in 1990. Jennings was a steal for the Bears in free agency last offseason when he returned on a two-year contract worth a total of $6.6 million, although the deal does contain up to a $1 million playing-time escalator that Jennings likely triggered for this upcoming season.
While contractual work potentially needs to be done with Tillman and Jennings, the Bears find themselves in the enviable position of not having to replace either starting cornerback, barring a surprise move or trade that theoretically is always possible. Rather, the Bears will have to focus on the rest of the cornerback depth chart where reserves Kelvin Hayden, D.J. Moore and Zack Bowman all have expiring contracts.
The only back-up cornerback with NFL experience signed through 2013 is Sherrick McManis, who carved out a nice role on special teams before being going on injured reserve.
Hayden began the year on the bench but eventually replaced Moore at nickelback and started two games at cornerback in place of an injured Jennings late in the season. Hayden did a decent job in his first year with the Bears, although he only caused one turnover all season. The veteran arrived in Chicago with the reputation of taking the ball away, one of the reasons he had always been so attractive to former Bears head coach Lovie Smith.
Moore still managed to record two interceptions in a reduced role, but he found himself deep in Smith's doghouse last year for a variety of reasons. Maybe Smith's departure will cause the Bears to re-think Moore's place on the roster, but if not, the 5-foot-9 defensive back is sure to generate some interest in free agency due to his 10 total interceptions over the past three seasons.
Bowman turned out to be a pleasant surprise for the Bears after he re-signed with the club on Oct. 16 following an offseason spent as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. Bowman excelled on special teams where he finished tied for second with 11 tackles and even made a couple solid contributions on defense as the season wore on. It also doesn't hurt that Bowman is a former starter with seven career interceptions.
Depending what the Bears do with their own free agents, the team might consider picking up an experienced cornerback or two in free agency to provide depth or possibly to challenge for the starting nickelback spot. Here is a list of the cornerbacks scheduled to be available beginning on March 12, but remember to take into account that several of these UFAs will be looking for starting jobs and starter's money, which the Bears probably aren't willing to provide.
Sean Smith, Miami Dolphins: The 6-3 Smith is reportedly looking to score a deal in the range of $7 million per year, and doesn't seem to fit what the Bears are looking for with Tillman and Jennings already on the roster. But Smith is Miami's best cover corner and is about to enter the prime of his career.
Adam Jones, Cincinnati Bengals: For all the trouble Jones caused earlier in his career, he actually settled down and became a quality nickelback and punt returner for the Bengals. It's worth noting the Bears took a gamble on Brandon Marshall last offseason and so far it's worked out without incident.
Aqib Talib, New England Patriots: Another defensive back with a troubled past but an impressive amount of talent. New England is reportedly hesitant about giving Talib a multi-year deal because of his checkered background.
Kyle Arrington, New England Patriots: Arrington had a bit of an uneven season in 2012 but he did intercept seven passes the year prior and has plenty of starting experience under his belt.
Keenan Lewis, Pittsburgh Steelers: It was a down year record-wise for the Steelers, but not for Lewis, who started all 16 games for the first time in his NFL career and appears poised to earn a significant raise after Pittsburgh passed on giving him a new deal last offseason.
Cary Williams, Baltimore Ravens: One of the starting cornerbacks for the Super Bowl Champion Ravens, Williams had his best year in 2012 with four interceptions, although he did nearly get ejected in the Super Bowl after he accidently shoved an official.
Chris Houston, Detroit Lions: A career starter with Atlanta and Detroit, Houston had another above-average campaign on a bad Lions team, after posting a career-high five interceptions in 2011. He could be a candidate to receive the franchise tag if the Lions want to keep him around.
Terence Newman, Cincinnati Bengals: Newman had a nine-year run in Dallas before he signed with the Bengals last April. In his first, and perhaps last, season in Cincinnati, the 34-year old Newman started 15 games for a playoff team.
Sheldon Brown, Cleveland Browns: Brown, who turns 34 next month, played well in Cleveland last year but might not be in the Browns' plans moving forward. But he has no shortage of experience and Brown still plays at a high level, meaning that teams should be interested depending on the length of the contract.
Joselio Hanson, Oakland Raiders: Hanson got released by the Eagles last summer but quickly caught on with the Raiders where had 61 tackles and two picks. He is primarily a slot defender which might be what the Bears are looking for this offseason.
E.J. Biggers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Biggers is another experienced nickelback who started 12 of 13 games last season after he broke his foot on the first day of training camp.
Leodis McKelvin: Buffalo Bills: McKelvin does his best work on special teams in the run game, but he still contributed to the Bills on defense over the year.