Starters at CB, S in place but needs persist
Bears defensive backs scored as many touchdowns (five) as Matt Forte and combined for 21 interceptions, not an exceptional total but marked by repeated scores without ever needing to bring the offense on the field.
But while one area of the secondary was settling into place, the other was going into the offseason with questions.
Placing both cornerbacks in the Pro Bowl was a franchise high point as well as individual milestones for both Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, the latter honored for the second time in as many seasons.
Jennings rebounded from a late-2011 benching to lead the NFL in interceptions with nine, one off Mark Carrier’s 1990 franchise marks. He devoted long hours to improving his pass-catching skills and the results were immediately apparent in the absence of dropped opportunities.
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Tillman intercepted three passes, returned each for a touchdown, and forced 10 fumbles, giving him an NFL-high 39 since 2003, the year he was drafted by the Bears.
D.J. Moore had two interceptions in the first six games as the nickel back but was out of a job and a game-day inactive twice on his way to being out of the 2013 plans. Kelvin Hayden found a new home in the defense, replacing Moore, but is an offseason uncertainty just because he was on a one-year deal.
The season was a coming-out for Major Wright, who started all 16 games for the first time in his three NFL years. He still had his mistakes but they were less the result of carelessness or recklessness than in his first two, and he played more snaps (1,045) than any other Bear, offense or defense.
Chris Conte nearly played one game more than his rookie year but still missed the last one with a hamstring injury, meaning that his first two NFL seasons have ended with injuries that would have cost him, and the Bears, the postseason.
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The position group was deemed enough of a need area for the Bears to invest third-round picks in each of the past three years. But while Brandon Hardin’s season was over before it began, with a neck injury in preseason, the Bears have him in the pipeline for 2013.
And Anthony Walters emerged as a legitimate figure on the depth chart after an injury-shortened rookie year. Walters started for Conte in Game 16, netted five tackles, two for losses, and tied for fourth with 10 special-teams tackles plus a fumble recovery.
Craig Steltz saw limited action in regular defense but remained a solid backup and special-teams player, signed through this season.
Needs assessment: 1…(5)…10 (highest)
The safety position is arguably as strong as it has been since Mike Brown and Chris Harris staffed the deep regions of the Cover-2 in the mid-2000’s. Wright matured as an NFL player and he and Conte both spoke of developing a sense of each others' play. The result was a whole that was greater than the sum of the parts.
With Hardin “redshirted,” safety is not high on any priority list.
Cornerback is another story, however. Jennings and Tillman are both going into contract years, and Tillman turned 32 in February. His savvy, style of play and performance the past two years make immediate action unnecessary, but after Jennings and Tillman, the Bears do not have a starter-grade corner under contract.
Re-signing Hayden would keep a true veteran core in place but the organization needs to free up some salary cap space. Tillman’s contract calls for $8 million in 2013 and an extension that puts cash in his pocket now in bonus form is one space-creator and for a player clearly at or near the top of his game.
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Tillman has played 16 games in each of the last three seasons and no fewer than 14 in only one of his 10 NFL seasons. If there is a dependable veteran in terms of level of play and durability, it would be Tillman.
Best free-agent options (based on value, fit)
CB Kelvin Hayden, Bears: Another Bears veteran who represents a better option to keep than risking an unknown from outside the organization. Hayden is a Chicago native, solid locker-room presence and was effective in nickel last season.
CB Marquice Cole, New England: Cole was a Northwestern teammate of Bears LB Nick Roach and DE Corey Wootton. He is underutilized in New England, has good size (5-10) and plays special teams. Price could be right for Chicago native.
CB Antwaun Molden, Jacksonville: Played in three games last season but they were with Bears D-coordinator Mel Tucker in Jacksonville. At 6-1 with low mileage, a backup with size and familiarity with Bears staff.