Tillman CB question overhangs Bears’ draft, free agency

Tillman CB question overhangs Bears’ draft, free agency
February 26, 2014, 10:00 am
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Didn’t the Bears just go through this scenario?

Overhanging the start of the 2013 offseason was the state affairs between the Bears and Brian Urlacher — an aging veteran with skills, health and a value subject to debate. Easily overlooked this offseason is the parallel situation with Charles Tillman — what the Bears will offer him, what his reaction to that will be and what the non-Bears market for him will be.

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Whether the Bears can or will offer Tillman a deal in the range of the $2 million Urlacher was offered remains to play out. A veteran starting cornerback of quality is worth every bit of $2 million, if that is how the Bears still regard Tillman.

And they appear to: “From the standpoint that he is man of the year in the National Football League No. 1, it just goes to his character and his personality and his leadership skills,” coach Marc Trestman said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “He’s a terrific football player. He played very well certainly when he was healthy. So he’s extremely important.”

Tillman is on record wanting to continue playing for the Bears. They’re on record wanting him to. But it’s not necessarily that simple and projects to have a significant impact on the Bears’ draft one way or the other.

The 2014 salary cap is expected to receive a bump of $4-6 million, which gives the Bears some added wiggle room for re-signing their own or pursuing other free agents. But given that every team gets the same $4-6 million added, it doesn’t necessarily give the Bears any added cap ammunition that their peers don’t also have.

[MORE: Who's the best DB in the 2014 NFL Draft?]

What also hasn’t changed is the reality that it isn’t possible to “buy” every position, meaning that draft hits are axiomatic to building a team successfully. Finding starters in Kyle Long and Jordan Mills took pressure off the offensive line this offseason; finding Alshon Jeffery in the 2012 draft removed the need to commit major cap resources at the wide-receiver position beyond Brandon Marshall (a looming contract-extension issue this season, but that problem is not on the front of the line just yet).

Drafting Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene and shifting Shea McClellin to linebacker — meaning that three of the current top four linebackers are on their rookie contracts — makes Lance Briggs’ 2014 price a non-problem. Paying major dollars for more than one linebacker can be a cap issue without bargains elsewhere.

So when the Bears’ committed to Tim Jennings with a four-year contract extension immediately after the season, the money available for Tillman necessarily tightened. The Bears paid Tillman and Nathan Vasher some years back and it meant a cap squeeze elsewhere.

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GM Phil Emery brought in Isaiah Frey with a sixth-round pick in 2012, and the season-ending preseason leg injury to Kelvin Hayden necessitated moving Frey up to the No. 1 nickelback spot. The results weren’t always optimal, but the experience gives the Bears some serviceable depth at a key position under another very manageable rookie contract.

For much of the last decade, the task of the personnel staff was finding a cornerback to play opposite Tillman. It's possible the top Bears question going into free agency is whether the Bears opt to secure Tillman to play opposite Jennings.