Chicago Bears: cornerbacks

Countdown to Combine: Bears

February, 20, 2014
With the NFL combine starting Feb. 22, here’s a look at Chicago's positions of need and which prospects the Bears might be looking taking a closer look at in Indianapolis. Positions of need are listed in order of importance.

Position of need: Cornerback

With franchise stalwart Charles Tillman pondering pending free agency, Tim Jennings, who signed a four-year deal in January worth $11.8 million guaranteed, remains the only cornerback on the club’s roster with experience as a starter.

Even if the Bears manage to bring back Tillman to start opposite Jennings in 2014, they still need to add depth in addition to addressing the future at the cornerback position. Of the nine cornerbacks on the roster at the end of the season, four are free agents; a list which includes Tillman, Kelvin Hayden, Sherrick McManis and Zack Bowman.

Tillman started in eight of nine games before finally going on the injured reserve with a torn triceps.

“We dearly missed the on-the-field leadership of Charles Tillman after his injury,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said at the end of the season. “He is a physical, playmaking football player who the players greatly respect. All of his teammates respect him. His loss had a significant impact on where we were as a defense.”

That loss could wind up being permanent despite the sides remaining engaged in dialogue about a deal that could bring back Tillman for 2014.

Three players the Bears could be targeting

Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State: Some mock drafts project Gilbert going to the Bears at No. 14. In addition to running track in college, Gilbert picked off seven passes, running two back for touchdowns. Considered a big-play specialist, Gilbert also provides versatility as a potential return man. He averaged 25.2 yards per kick return at Oklahoma State, including five returns for TDs.

Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: Not as big as Gilbert, but a case can be made for Dennard being the only shutdown corner in this year’s class. Dennard won the Thorpe Award, given annually to the top defensive back in the nation. Dennard picked off four passes last season, in addition to contributing 59 tackles. There have been questions about Dennard’s true speed, but he’s considered one of the more fundamentally sound corners of the class.

Jason Verrett, Texas Christian: Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner possesses similar size, but played with a better supporting cast than Verrett, who is instinctive, anticipates well, and physical, despite a lack of ideal size. Opponents threw away from him during his final season, but Verrett picked off nine passes and broke up 34 more in three years as a starter. Verrett’s explosiveness is similar to that of Jennings.

Bears draft preview: Cornerbacks

April, 21, 2012
Titus YoungAP Photo/Matt CilleyOregon State cornerback Brandon Hardin, left, who has visited with the Bears, could wind up at safety in the NFL.
The Chicago Bears upgraded the talent of their depth at cornerback by replacing free-agent departures Zack Bowman and Corey Graham with veterans Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite.

If healthy, Hayden should challenge Tim Jennings for the starting job opposite Charles Tillman. But with Hayden the key word is “if,” which is why it makes sense for the Bears to strongly consider adding a cornerback in the draft capable of challenging for a starting job.

Improved quarterback play around the division with players such as Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, coupled with the dangerous receivers of the NFC North intensifies the need to stock rosters with top-notch cover men.

“I don’t have the statistics to say, but I would say from two years ago through last year, our division has definitely improved. I would say it’s going to continue to improve and you start at the quarterback position,” Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “You have four relatively young quarterbacks that are getting ready to play in the high part of their careers.”

The Bears see what’s developing and are making the appropriate moves to compensate. Surely they also view the current situation at cornerback as somewhat unsettled because of Jennings’ struggles last season, paired with the health of Hayden.

Hayden struggled to play with a dislocated toe last season in Atlanta, and the Falcons eventually placed him on the injured reserve. Having started in 47 games in seven seasons, Hayden has also failed multiple team physicals in the past because of a 2010 neck injury, and isn’t yet fully recovered from the toe injury that ended his 2011 campaign.

Wilhite, meanwhile, is viewed as a backup, although he’s displayed the ability to start in the past.

So the Bears could be looking for insurance. The Bears have held private workouts with West Virginia’s Keith Tandy and Montana’s Trumaine Johnson, in addition to bringing in Oregon State cornerback Brandon Hardin in for a visit.

Johnson projects as a second-round pick, while Tandy will likely go undrafted or taken late. Although Hardin and Tandy played corner in college, scouts project both could move to free safety in the NFL.

The next 10: 11. Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech, 5-10, 178; 12. Chase Minnifield, Virginia, 5-11, 183; 13. Jamell Fleming, Oklahoma, 5-11, 206; 14. Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina, 6-0, 197; 15. Ron Brooks, Louisiana State, 5-10, 190; 16. Trevin Wade, Arizona, 5-10, 192; 17. Omar Bolden, Arizona State, 5-11, 202; 18. Leonard Johnson, Iowa State, 5-10, 196; 19. Shaun Prater, Iowa, 5-10, 190; 20. Asa Jackson, Cal Poly, 5-10, 191.

Position grade: B-.

Analysis: Passing offenses are becoming much more prolific, heightening the demand for shutdown corners. Three appear to be first-round locks, but some of the NFL’s future stars could come from the raw small-school prospects such as Montana’s Johnson, and Coastal Carolina’s Josh Norman. Because of the uncertainty at cornerback opposite Tillman going into 2012, look for the Bears to be in the mix to add at the position.

The Bears have also shown interest in Louisiana State cornerback Ron Brooks, who projects as a fourth to fifth-round pick that would provide added value on special teams as a gunner.