The value of backup cornerbacks can’t be diminished in what’s become a passing league over the years.
Some coaches consider reserve corners even more important than starting linebackers, who in many cases play on first and second downs before giving way to the defensive backs on passing downs in teams’ substitution packages.
The problem in Chicago is the Bears don’t appear to have that starting-quality corner that coaches covet at the nickel. The club needs to find one quickly if it expects to be competitive against the high-powered passing attacks of divisional foes such as Green Bay and Minnesota, which last season ranked seventh and eighth in the NFL in passing offense, respectively.
Several candidates figure into the mix for the No. 3 corner spot, including Corey Graham, Tim Jennings, D.J. Moore, Woodny Turenne and rookie Joshua Moore. Factoring injuries into the equation, the Bears would ideally need four solid corners heading into the season.
So we’ll take a look at the top candidates for the No. 3 spot because, logically, the runner-up in the derby would assume the No. 4 position on the depth chart:
Graham worked as the starter at nickel during the club’s recent minicamp and currently appears to be one of the frontrunners for the job. Having started nine games in 2008, Graham also adds experience. For whatever reason, though, Graham seemed to fall out of favor last season with the staff.
At 6-feet tall, Graham possesses ideal size for matchups against slot receivers. But it’s believed he fell out of favor in the past because the staff didn’t think he possessed the requisite speed for all the man-to-man matchups required of the position. Graham seems to be debunking that knock with improved technique and route recognition. He’s produced one of the strongest offseasons of the corners vying for the nickel spot.
Another of the top candidates, Jennings -- a free-agent addition from the Colts -- also brings plenty of experience to the position. Jennings replaced Charles Tillman as the starter opposite Zackary Bowman during minicamp for one practice session. A former second-round pick, Jennings has started 21 games and picked off four career passes in addition to registering 161 tackles.
Lack of size appears to be Jennings’ main physical deficiency, given he’s 5-8 and 185 pounds. There’s concern about whether he’ll hold up in the slot against big, physical receivers. Jennings flashes impressive speed and solid tackling ability, but with the Colts he never lived up to his billing as a second-round pick, and was passed on the depth chart a few times by younger players.
Similar to Jennings, Moore fits into the diminutive mold at 5-9, 183 pounds. In terms of evaluation, there’s not much to go on with Moore other than what he did in college at Vanderbilt. As a rookie last season, Moore played in three games, primarily on special teams.
At Vanderbilt, Moore intercepted 13 career passes and started 34 games over three years, before making the decision to forgo his final year. Moore likely won’t be given many opportunities to compete for serious playing time. But he possesses good ball skills, instincts and athleticism. Injury and/or ineptitude from the other candidates might push Moore into contention. Either way, he needs to step it up to stay on the roster.
Despite Moore’s lack of upper-body strength (two bench-press repetitions of 225 pounds at the combine), “you can’t deny his ability in man-to-man [coverage],” said one NFC South scout. Moore showcased those lockdown skills during minicamp, making several plays during one-on-one drills. Given Moore’s promising start, it’s likely he’ll receive serious consideration at nickel.
Moore (5-11, 188 pounds) already seems to be a fluid corner, who should only improve after mastering some of the technical nuances of the NFL game. Even with a lack of upper-body strength, Moore has shown on film he’s a willing defender against the run (although he struggles to shed blockers). He’ll be evaluated closely at camp, and if Moore isn’t what the club expected when it drafted him from Kansas State in the fifth round, he could wind up on the practice squad.
Somewhat of a dark horse to emerge as the starting nickel, Turenne joined the club last season as an undrafted free agent with an eye on development for the future. Well, the future could be now for Turenne, who spent the first 15 weeks of 2009 on the practice squad.
Turenne possesses decent size (6-0, 184 pounds), solid instincts and has shown he can handle the physicality of run support. But some scouts question his ball skills and whether his top-end speed is adequate enough to hold his own in man coverage. Like D.J. Moore and Joshua Moore, Turenne remains somewhat raw. But at camp last year, Turenne displayed a penchant for making plays.