By Dan Durkin-
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series that takes an all-encompassing look at the state of the Bears’ roster. Click here to read breakdowns of the other positions.
(CBS) In 2013, the Bears defense was defenseless against opponents’ running games, giving up a franchise-high 2,583 rushing yards. In 2014, it was the pass defense’s turn to sink to the bottom of the league.
The Bears allowed the league’s second-most passing touchdowns (34), third-most passing yards (4,230) and third-most yards per attempt (8.1). They were one of three teams to allow opposing quarterbacks to average over a 100 passer efficiency rating.
Putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the cornerbacks isn’t fair, as all successful pass defenses have their rush and coverage units working in tandem. However, the way former general manager Phil Emery built the position from a talent and depth standpoint was questionable.
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Heading into the 2014 offseason, cornerback was clearly a position of need. Both starting cornerbacks from the 2013 season — Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman — were set to hit free agency, and both were in their 30s. In a division that features potent passing attacks, the Bears needed to prioritize the position.
Less than a week after the 2013 season ended, Emery extended Jennings with a lucrative four-year, $22.4-million contract with $11.815 guaranteed. Jennings had proved to be a durable and dependable player, making 30 starts and collecting 13 interceptions over the previous two seasons. Three days into the 2014 league year, the Bears reached a one-year, $3.25-million agreement with Tillman.
Those moves didn’t prevent Emery from addressing the position again in the draft, where he spent the team’s first-round selection (14th overall) on cornerback Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech. The plan was to start Fuller out in nickel packages, where he would play on the outside at left cornerback as Jennings slid into the slot.
Tillman suffered a torn triceps during the third quarter of Chicago’s second game of the season, which quickly forced the Bears to resort to their contingency plan.
Fuller was thrust into a starting role on the right side, which he fared well in to start off, flashing the skill set that made him a first-round pick — fluid hips to pattern match and instincts to drive on the ball and be disruptive.
Fuller’s two interceptions in the 49ers game helped the team complete an improbable comeback win, but as the season wore on, he suffered hip and hand injuries that led to a steep drop in performance.
The Bears matched Fuller up against a fellow rookie in Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin, in which Fuller came out on top. But in games against NFC North opponents, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Calvin Johnson had their way with Fuller.
Tillman’s injury not only forced Fuller into action sooner than later, it forced inexperienced players onto the field and exposed the lack of quality, experienced depth at the position. The nickel role was handled by the likes of Isaiah Frey, who was released after the Panthers game. Demontre Hurst then assumed the role and struggled in coverage.
The NFL is a three-receiver league, which makes the nickel corner effectively a starter.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, the Bears only have three cornerbacks under contract — Jennings, Fuller and Terrance Mitchell. Hurst and Al Louis-Jean are exclusive rights free agents, meaning that because they have less than two years of accrued experience in the league, the Bears can tender the player at $585,000 in a take-it-or-leave-it scenario, as the players have no negotiating rights.
The free-agent market has some potentially intriguing options. While it’s doubtful he’d make it there, New England’s Darrelle Revis will be the most sought-after player on the market, followed by Houston’s Kareem Jackson and Arizona’s Antonio Cromartie.
Some intriguing value players at the position include Darius Butler (Colts), Brandon Flowers (Chargers) and Byron Maxwell (Seahawks).
All three cornerbacks that new Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and new secondary coach Ed Donatell relied on last season in San Francisco are set to hit the market as well — Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Chris Cook. Bringing in a player who’s familiar with your scheme and terminology could be a boon for a group that must add at least two players at the position this offseason.
In the draft, three prospects should earn first-round grades — Washington’s Marcus Peters, Michigan State’s Trae Waynes and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.