As wide receivers have reached "Super Size" proportions, the NFL feels a need to counter with big, physical cornerbacks.
Enter 5-foot-8, 185-pound Tim Jennings of the Bears. The Anti-Peanut, but turning into just as tough a nut to crack.
Jennings rewarded the Bears for their two-year investment worth more than $10 million prior to last season by grabbing a league-high nine interceptions, being voted to his first Pro Bowl, and gaining second-team Associated Press All-Pro honors. That was with Charles Tillman guarding opponents' top receivers across the field, and with a defensive line that accounted for 38 of the club's 41 sacks. This year Tillman's been out since the midway point of the season, and the defensive line has 18 sacks with two games remaining.
Since Tillman's season-ending injury, Jennings has reminded the coaching staff he wants those big No. 1 targets, not the 6-foot-1 Zack Bowman, the guy he beat out for this job a couple of years ago. In the aftermath of the last Peanut vs. Megatron matchup that very well could've been Tillman's last game as a Bear (as the best cornerback in team history), Jennings didn't have to deal with studs from the Baltimore Ravens in windswept Soldier Field or anyone of note on the run-gashing St. Louis Rams a week later. Then came the 4th-and-11 in Minnesota. Greg Jennings dove, just a half-step behind Jerome Simpson, but it turned into a completion on a blitz that came too late, and the spark in an overtime-forcing field goal drive that turned into a loss many felt the club wouldn't recover from.
Then came 6-foot-2, 222-pound beast Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys and 6-foot-3, 225-pound Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns. When the dust settled, the two combined for just five catches and 79 yards. Each scored a TD - Bryant early, and Gordon late. There was also some mysterious quarterbacking and play-calling in both. But Jennings shouldn't mind after all the hand-wringing about that duo in the days leading up to those games. Numbers are numbers - sometimes inflated in his favor, other to his detriment. It made colleague Bob LeGere and me to wonder during a walk to the Walter Payton Center this week whether Jennings was actually having a better year this year than last.
Jennings' sexy stat has been chopped down as a result of the defensive changes around him, just three picks, none in more than two months. But the encouraging numbers come in the fan Pro Bowl balloting - who've looked beyond that interception total to make him the leading vote-getter among all NFL cornerbacks, with less than a week to go. That's one-third of the determining factor in the roster makeup. The players and coaches who determine the other two-thirds did their voting Thursday and Friday, with results announced on Dec. 27. It'll be interesting to see if Jennings keeps his Pro Bowl traction with his peers.
Jennings isn't the best cornerback in the NFL. But this season has so far proven he's among the best, looking for a new contract again. The belief is that Tillman still has a quality year or two of football left in him. The question is whether the Bears and Peanut can reach a financial middle ground for what he can still provide, not what he's provided in a decade of quality service.
Losing both Jennings and Tillman creates a gaping hole for the Bears in a division that includes Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, for starters. Bowman has been a solid fill-in, and Isaiah Frey might deserve a shot at more playing time after encouraging play all season as the nickelback. But they'll need more than the latter two, and drafting one in the first three rounds could be on Phil Emery's wish list.
Corey Wootton's been very important and been a "team" guy, sacrificing numbers to move inside at defensive tackle in emergency. Part of the reason he did that was Henry Melton's injury - which drops Melton out of the $8 million-plus salary range he was tagged with this season. D.J. Williams and James Anderson are veteran linebackers tough to clearly judge by injury, and the trickle-down effects of injury. That makes Jennings the most important free agent defender the Bears need to re-sign.
Join Jim Miller, Dan Jiggetts and me for "Bears Pregame Live" Sunday night on Comcast SportsNet from 6-7 p.m. before switching over to NBC for the 7:25 kickoff in Philadelphia. Afterwards, immediately switch back to CSN for 90 minutes of live postgame press conferences, locker room reaction and analysis on "Bears Postgame Live, Presented by Nissan."