LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Even as a rookie, he was never shy. But Charles Tillman was amazed when he was selected with the 36th overall pick in the 2003 draft, the second-rounder out of Louisiana-Lafayette joking in his first words to the Chicago media, "I don't smoke, but I feel like I need a cigarette."
Ten NFL seasons later, some things haven't changed. Like his pre-Bears days, when Tillman was considered an obscure name but a top-10 cornerback in a very deep draft class, he's still a highly regarded talent with a relatively low profile.
"He's always been good," said Brian Urlacher, citing Tillman's signature fourth-quarter interception of a Randy Moss pass in the end zone his rookie season, "he just hasn't gotten the recognition. He's been taking the ball away his whole career. There's been some good corners in the NFC, so they've kind of overshadowed him, but he's been doing it his whole career."
Indeed, Tillman's 32 forced fumbles are the most by an NFL defensive back since he came into the league. But names such as Champ Bailey, Troy Vincent, Dre' Bly, Charles Woodson, DeAngelo Hall, Asante Samuel, Ronde Barber, Al Harris, Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield always seemed to take top billing in the NFC.
Tillman received his first Pro Bowl recognition just last season. And while he appears to be an early lock - with two interception returns for touchdowns, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery to go along with 27 total tackles and four pass breakups in just six games -- the Cover-2 demands that corners force receivers toward the center of the field, where more coverage awaits.
But playmakers generally find a way to shine. And in Tillman's favor for a second Pro Bowl is the fact that he has had big games in, well, bigger games -- such as Monday night, when he limited Calvin Johnson to three catches (out of 11 times he was targeted) for a season-low 34 yards and forced two fumbles.
That, of course, is where Tillman has made his name, taking a knack he had in college and turning into a legitimate weapon. More impressive, however, is that at 31, the son of an army sergeant and soon-to-be father of four seems to keep getting better.
He had his first 16-game season in 2010 and followed that with another last year. But he hasn't missed more than two games since his second year in the league, when he was sidelined eight games with a knee injury. Since then, there have been the usual up-and-down moments that exist for any player who has ever found himself on the dreaded island, but never more than a clunker here and there.
After nine years in the league, it is but one factor in his longevity.
"I like to be consistent [but] I don't have cornerback figured out," he said. "I think each year I learn something more about the position. I learn something more about myself. With each year comes knowledge ...
"I'm always trying to peak, I never want to level off. Each year, I just want to get a little bit better, a little bit better, a little bit better."
Tillman said playing against Brandon Marshall in practice has made him better, just as his competition with former Bears receiver Muhsin Muhammad helped him earlier in his career. It has not hurt to have another Pro Bowl-caliber corner such as Tim Jennings on the other side.
With bonuses, Tillman -- who signed a six-year, $42 million contract extension in '07, including $18 million guaranteed -- will earn in the neighborhood of $8 million this season and next. That won't make him one of the highest-paid corners in the league, but you won't hear him complain.
Instead, he and Bears coach Lovie Smith agree that at 31, Tillman is probably in the best physical shape of his career.
"He just keeps getting better and better," Urlacher said.
"I might not be that 4.43 guy [from] 10 years ago," said Tillman. "I might be a 4.5. But also with that, I think my technique has gotten better, I think I've gotten a lot smarter ..."
And those smarts, Tillman said, are what sustain him.
"You definitely have to go through some things to learn some things," he said. "The error of the past is the wisdom of the future, and I'm a firm believer in that and I've made my fair share of mistakes. I think mistakes are OK if you learn from them."