In the wake of the 2013 free agency, draft and offseason work at minicamps and OTAs, CSNChicago.com examines where the Bears have gone and where they will be going when training camp convenes in late July. One of a series.
The 2012 season was one of the finest overall in recent memory for Bears defensive backs, collectively and individually. And everyone is back, three of the starting four playing for next contracts.
Cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman were selected to the Pro Bowl. Safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright came together to form a solid tandem. The four missed a total of three games (Conte one, Jennings two) to injury. Jennings, Tillman and Wright each returned at least one interception for a touchdown.
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Collectively, the defense ranked sixth in third-down stops (35.5 percent). Jennings and Tillman combined for 31 pass deflections and, with Brian Urlacher missing four games, Tillman was second only to Lance Briggs in tackles with 93 to go with his 10 forced fumbles. Tillman was the No. 3-rated cornerback in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.com, with a rating below only Antoine Winfield in Minnesota and Seattle’s Richard Sherman.
The Bears did not draft a safety for the first time since 2004, reflecting needs elsewhere and also that what they got from the current roster was adequate, with Anthony Walters even starting a game (16) and Brandon Hardin having a redshirt year due to injury.
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Jennings’ season was a comeback of sorts. He lost his starting job briefly because of failures to hang onto footballs, whereupon he worked all offseason on catching and proceeded to lead the NFL with nine interceptions.
It will be a difficult season act to follow.
Issue No. 1: Succession planning
Because three of the four starting defensive backs -- plus the nickel -- are free agents after this season, the progress of the entire depth chart is the true issue. And it's not a simple situation.
The Bears invested a 2012 third-round draft pick in Brandon Hardin, who is listed as a safety at 6-foot-3, 217 pounds. But Hardin was a cornerback at Oregon State; he missed his senior season with a broken shoulder; and he spent his rookie NFL season on IR with a neck injury in preseason.
The result is a potential key player who has not played in two full years, was a full-time starter just his junior season, and who has never been in the position for which the Bears drafted him.
Zackary Bowman was brought back last season after a brief stint in Minnesota. Bowman has been a minor enigma, possessed of the physical tools for the position and with a solid get-better attitude. But the consistency has been lacking, consigning him to special teams and intermittent use.
The Bears’ plan beyond 2013 is a concern. Tillman is 33. Jennings turns 30 in December. Both will be free agents. So will Wright, who had a career-best four interceptions last season and was the fourth-leading tackler (extrapolating Urlacher’s totals from 12 games).
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Wright had to be smiling at the contract extension Morgan Burnett recently signed with the Green Bay Packers. Burnett’s deal can top out at $26 million over four years and includes $8.25 million in signing bonus.
Burnett was selected four picks ahead of when the Bears drafted Wright, who could be in for a new deal before the end of the ’13 season.