If Charles Tillman played his last game for the Bears last Sunday, it was fitting it came against the man he was perhaps most known for matching up against (and often saved his team from), Calvin Johnson. This time, Megatron and his Lions came out on top, which was more the exception than the rule during their head-to-head battles (eight wins by Tillman and the Bears, against four defeats).
The best cornerback in Bears history turns 33 in February, and while he wants to play two more years in the only NFL uniform he's worn, general manager Phil Emery must decide whether it's time to move on to the future, or determine whether his warrior of a corner had a fluke season with his knee — and now triceps — injuries.
Tillman works as hard as anyone to stay in shape and keep that "age" chip on his shoulder. But at some point, great players just lose a step no matter how hard they try to prevent it. We saw it with Brian Urlacher. We think we're starting to see it with Julius Peppers. If he hits free agency looking to match his $8 million 2013 salary, Peanut's as good as gone. But if there is a "right price" making him worth keeping around for Emery, what might that be? Would it be as low as the $2 million salary he reportedly offered Urlacher? Somewhere in between? Would that be enough for Tillman in a world where general managers must pay on the production and role they expect moving forward, as opposed to past performance?
Emery must have an idea how much it was the knee that kept Tillman from playing at his Pro Bowl level, and whether he'd be prone to similar bumps and aches which would affect him in 2014 and beyond.
If the Bears draft a cornerback, Tillman would be invaluable to have around to compete with and teach an apprentice if the Bears decide he has those two years in him, and can battle at the comparable bar he's set. But let's also keep in mind the starter on the other side, Tim Jennings, is a free agent as well after making $5.1 million this season. Peppers will consume $18 million of salary cap space and if Jay Cutler gets a franchise tag, figure that's another $15 million chunk of the cap, which will be somewhere in the neighborhood of this year's $123 million.
A scary glimpse into the future can be seen in the past. The last time the Bears played a game without both Tillman and Lance Briggs (as they will Sunday) was in 2007. They started in a nickel defense that consisted of Ricky Manning, Jr., Daniael Manning, Kevin Payne, Brandon McGowan, and Trumaine McBride. Yikes. They actually led that game 13-3 after three quarters before allowing 34 points in the fourth quarter. To be fair, two of those touchdowns came from a pick-six and a kickoff return. It was also a defense playing without Mike Brown and Tommie Harris, who were still productive players then, but injured at the time. But without Tillman and Jennings, it at least partly provides a glimpse into the need for quality in the secondary. Emery could also feel a need for change at safety after witnessing some of the play this season.
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Mel Kiper recently gave our Bears insider John 'Moon' Mullin a couple of names to watch at the position for the 2014 draft. It seems like the conference to watch for that is the Big 12, with Jason Verrett of TCU, Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State and Aaron Colvin of Oklahoma at or near the top of most boards. There's also Bradley Roby of Ohio State, who returned a pick for a touchdown Saturday against Illinois. And Florida's tandem of Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy are also projected to be first- or second-round selections. Only Purifoy (6'1) is taller than six feet. Tillman is 6'2, and size matters against the likes of Megatron and Jordy Nelson four times a year.
The top corners on the free agent market who'll also look to get paid include Alterraun Verner of Tennessee, whose five interceptions shares the NFL lead. Others are Seattle's Brandon Browner, Tracy Porter of Oakland, 6'2 Dominique Rogers-Cromartie of Denver, and Green Bay's Sam Shields. But each isn't necessarily a fit for the Bears' scheme.
There are many other needs Emery needs to address on the defensive side. He likes to think he's already started that process at linebacker with this year's draft. He may already know how he wants to handle Tillman. But the shutdown corner Bears bosses didn't need to worry about for the better part of the past decade is now yet another question on a defense full of them.