Ninth in a 13-part series of previews for Bears training camp
Never mind his secret to punching the ball out. Teammates seeking advice from Charles Tillman instead should inquire about keys to maintaining a high level of play deep into a career as he's entering his 11th season.
The 32-year-old cornerback has gotten recognition around the NFL the last two seasons with the first two Pro Bowl appearances of his career — the first time a Bears cornerback ever has been named an all-star in consecutive seasons. Fourteen of his 39 career forced fumbles have come in the last two years and he had 10 in 2012 — tied for the most in a single season since 1991, according to STATS. Four of them came in the Week 9 blowout victory at Tennessee.
Add in six interceptions in the last two years and five defensive touchdowns and it's easy to see how a popular Bears starter since 2003 suddenly is known more around the league. He has been an obstacle for NFC North receivers throughout his career and Tillman played a large part in keeping Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson below 2,000 yards for the season in 2012. Johnson managed 72 yards on five receptions in the season finale, a 26-24 Bears' victory in Week 17 at Ford Field. Johnson had just three catches for 34 yards in the Week 8 game at Soldier Field, and he finished the season with 1,964 yards.
Tillman is entering the final year of the six-year extension he signed just before the start of training camp in 2007. The truth is the Bears didn't expect to have Tillman in a starting role as the deal came to a close. Tillman will earn $8 million this season with $7.95 million in base salary and $50,000 in a workout bonus. It's more than double what he has earned in any of the previous four seasons and it's because at the time of the deal, most considered the final year "fluff" to pump up the total value of the contract to $40.55 million. The Bears viewed it, at the time, as a five-year extension for $32.55 million, figuring 2013 never would happen. Tillman's camp probably figured he would get the big pay day or it would lead the team to re-do his contract. The latter hasn't happened so Tillman is entering what is a contract year.
The free-agent market was not kind to experienced cornerbacks this offseason and while a strong case can be made none have been playing at the level of Tillman, it's a point worth considering when you look ahead. The Bears don't have to make a decision on him until after this season. That's not to say general manager Phil Emery will not consider an extension before then, but right now it seems a wise move to wait and see what happens.
If he continues to perform at a high level, it's going to create an interesting decision because teams generally try to avoid sinking big investments in 33-year-old players. Linebacker Lance Briggs also will be 33 in 2014 and defensive end Julius Peppers will be 34. Pretty soon, you're looking at a remake of the "Over The Hill Gang" George Allen once had with the Redskins.
But at an age when many players are slowing down, Tillman continues to excel. Moreover, he has been durable, having missed only six games over the last eight seasons despite two shoulder surgeries and two back surgeries. He's meticulous in his preparation and keeps his body in top shape.
As long as new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker leans heavily on a Cover-2 scheme, there's no reason Tillman cannot remain effective for several more seasons. Ronde Barber lasted 16 seasons for the Buccaneers in a similar system.
Preview: Opposite Tillman, Tim Jennings turned in a career year as he led the NFL with nine interceptions. Dinged for dropping passes previously in his career, he caught nearly everything that came his way as he joined Tillman as a Pro Bowl starter. They gave the Bears the first starting pair of cornerbacks in the game since the Browns had Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield in 1988.
Jennings was a decent player for the Colts earlier in his career but elevated his game under Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli. At 29, he also is entering a contract season as his two-year deal expires after this season. He's a relative bargain at $4.6 million.
It's interesting that in a strong 2013 draft class for cornerbacks, the Bears neglected to pick one to develop behind their aging playmakers. Instead, Emery drafted a pair of linebackers, opting to begin an overhaul of that position.
Nickel cornerback Kelvin Hayden is back on a one-year deal for the minimum salary meaning the top three on the depth chart are all coming out of contract. Former nickel cornerback D.J. Moore, once a top pupil of Smith, left for the Panthers via free agency.
Zack Bowman excelled last season on special teams when he was brought back for another stint with the team and he got some extended time with the first team in the spring. Sherrick McManis has a little experience too. Isaiah Frey, a seventh-round pick a year ago, worked as the backup nickel in the offseason and he will have to continue to make plays to push for a roster spot.
Glass half-full: Tillman and Jennings enjoy seasons with similar success and give Emery many reasons to try to bring them back. Tillman and Jennings have benefited from a solid pass rush but they still need to be playmakers. If they can continue to create takeaways, they're going to go a long way toward keeping the defense among the best in the league.
Glass half-empty: It's real simple: Age begins to set in. But if Tucker relies on a base Cover-2 and practices the same principles that aids an experienced cornerback who lacks top-end speed. Depth has to be a concern and none of the young players can be called legitimate prospects yet.
Coaching: Secondary coach Jon Hoke was one of two holdovers on the defensive side along with line coach Mike Phair. Hoke joined Smith's staff in 2009 and his work with the cornerbacks and safeties has caught the attention of teams around the league. The Vikings, Eagles and Bucs all have called on him as a candidate to be a defensive coordinator. It's something that might not be far off for him.
Bottom line: This unit was a strength of the defense a year ago but it will be difficult for Tillman and Jennings to replicate what were truly career seasons.
Coming Friday: Offensive line