Competition abounds at cornerback

Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith envisions four players competing for two starting cornerback spots when business resumes in the NFL.

That number, however, could swell if the Bears address the cornerback position in the draft or free agency, a strong possibility since Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has selected a cornerback in each of the past four years.

"Charles Tillman has been injured quite a bit, but this past year, no injuries,” Smith said earlier in the month at the NFL owner’s meetings in New Orleans. “The guy played so well with what he brought to the table, stripping the ball and just being a tough guy. Tim Jennings, you know, he was on the outside looking in. Zack Bowman was the starter, Tim was a backup. [We] picked him up [as a] special teams player, you know. But he made so much progress and he was competing so hard, we got great corner play out of those guys. We still haven’t given up on Zack Bowman. Zach’s size, speed and hands, he has all those things. I can’t wait to see that competition.

“Then Josh Moore, we like Josh Moore, a player that you didn’t get a chance to see last year. Those four, I’m anxious to see what they can do. But just like I say with the defensive line, you’re always trying to improve your cornerback position and add a player to the mix.”

It’s tough to imagine the Bears pushing Tillman out of the starting lineup -- barring injury -- after the veteran finished 2010 tied for the team lead in interceptions (5) and forced fumbles (3), while ranking third in tackles (101) and second in passes broken up (11).

That likely leaves just one spot open for the other challengers.

The most intriguing of the current bunch is Bowman. Despite leading the Bears with six interceptions in 2009, which led to Bowman being elevated to the team’s No. 1 cornerback (LCB) the following offseason, the 2008 fifth-round draft choice lost his starting job in 2010 following the Bears’ 20-17 win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 3.

Bowman began to fall out of favor with the coaching staff after Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson caught what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown in the season opener at Soldier Field. Even though the play was ruled a non-catch and the Bears won the game, Bowman took the heat for allowing the near completion, despite the fact Smith made a poor defensive call on the play. Although the Bears head coach claimed in a postgame news conference the unit was playing its signature Cover-2 defense on the play in question, it was later revealed Smith called for a three-deep style coverage, which left Bowman without help over the top versus the 6-foot-5 Pro Bowl wideout.

After failing to record a takeaway against Detroit, Dallas and Green Bay, Bowman, whose first interception in 2009 came in Week 5, was pulled in favor of Jennings after he missed an open-field tackle during the Packers game. The cornerback appeared to be working his way back into the rotation when the Bears hosted Seattle on Oct. 17, but Bowman suffered a foot injury in the meeting with the Seahawks, and subsequently missed the next three contests.

Initially, the foot injury wasn’t believed to be serious, but Bowman wasn’t cleared to return by the Bears medical staff until Nov. 18 when the club traveled to Miami. Smith, who famously tells reporters “he’s not a doctor” to deflect injury questions, seemed to take issue with the amount of time Bowman was forced to miss, which led to the defensive back falling deeper into the head coach’s doghouse.

Where that leaves Bowman for 2011 is unclear.

“You can’t be real excited about a guy’s play that year when they’re beaten out by someone else,” Smith said. “Zach went into the season as the starter, and didn’t play as well as he needed to early on, which allowed Tim to take advantage of that opportunity. So Zach needs to come back [strong] this year, which he’s capable of doing.”

Moore, a 2010 fifth-round choice out of Kansas State, is expected to receive a strong push from the coaching staff, and from a talent standpoint, has the necessary skills to be a starting caliber player. However, questions continue to linger about Moore’s upper body strength -- he managed only two reps at 225 pounds in front of scouts at the 2010 NFL Combine. Plus, entering only his second year in the league, Moore still needs a little seasoning, which is perfectly understandable for a player who received few reps at practice.

Signed by the Bears as a free agent last offseason, Jennings performed admirably much of the year despite standing at 5-8. An above average tackler, Jennings’ 2010 campaign ended on a sour note after he struggled in the NFC Championship Game versus the Packers. Although Smith continues to publically support Jennings, the veteran forced only two takeaways in 15 starts, including the postseason.

“Tim did some good things, but we lost to the Super Bowl champion,” Smith said. “They have good receivers. We didn’t lose the game based on Tim’s play. We didn’t lose any games based on Tim Jennings’ play. I’m pleased with how he played.

“A lot of times you talk cornerback play. We’re going to talk about our defensive line, too. Pass coverage is both. If we can just keep getting players that play as hard as Tim, and brings to the table what he brought, we’ll be OK.”

As ESPNChicago.com reported last month, cornerback Corey Graham plans to leave Chicago if he reaches unrestricted free agency. Graham, however, only has four accrued NFL seasons, and might be classified as a restricted free agent -- the Bears tendered Graham a restricted free agent qualifying offer -- when a new collective bargaining agreement is reached or if an injunction is issued by the courts to lift the lockout.

Graham is not expected to be in the mix at cornerback if he returns to the Bears for a fifth season.

“Corey has been more of a specialist for us,” Smith said. “To say he can’t play [cornerback], I wouldn’t say that. He’s gotten his opportunity to play for us, and didn’t play as well as we probably would’ve liked.”