Pompei: Bears can't cut corners in secondary anymore

Aging starters mean team needs cornerbacks and draft is well-stocked with them

INDIANAPOLIS — There has been much speculation about offensive linemen and the Bears.

Mock drafters have prognosticated the Bears will draft offensive tackles, guards, middle linebackers and tight ends.

There has been nary a word about cornerbacks.

But cornerback is the Bears' hidden need for a number of reasons, but primarily because Charles Tillman, the team's most reliable corner, is 32.

Tillman is an unusual athlete who goes to great lengths to preserve and prepare his body. But he already has performed at a high level longer than most corners, and the list of productive cornerbacks in their mid-30s in NFL history is a short one.

Even if Tillman continues to produce, it might not be in Chicago. He is entering the final year of his contract.

Tim Jennings is as well. Jennings, 29, could have a longer shelf life than Tillman. But he is coming off a career year, and it's fair to question if he ever will have another nine-interception season.

Depth also is a concern. Kelvin Hayden became the nickel corner last year, but his contract is up. The Bears probably will try to re-sign him, but there are no guarantees they will.

Also scheduled to be free agents are D.J. Moore and Zack Bowman. Given that Moore was benched last year and did not have a very good season, it seems unlikely he will be back.

The previous coaching staff looked at Bowman primarily as a special teams player, and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke is one of the holdovers from the old staff. That makes it seem likely that if Bowman returns it will be in a similar role.

Cornerback was enough of a concern last April that the Bears used two draft picks on corners, choosing Isaiah Frey in the sixth round and Greg McCoy in the seventh, but neither had an impact.

Frey spent the season on the practice squad and is on the offseason roster. He will have a chance to stick in September.

Regardless, the Bears need a big, young corner who can be a building block. And reeling in a corner in the 2013 draft should be about as easy as catching a trout in a stocked pond.

There probably is more quality in this draft at the position than at any other.

"There are a number who are going to help teams either as a one, two or three," Bears general manager Phil Emery said. "I would say that's a strength."

According to a survey of front office men, as many as 13 cornerbacks could be taken in the first two rounds. They are Southeast Louisiana's Robert Alford, Cal's Marc Anthony, Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks, Utah State's Will Davis, Connecticut's Dwayne Gratz, Alabama's Dee Milliner, Oregon State's Jordan Poyer, Florida State's Xavier Rhodes, Rutgers' Logan Ryan, Mississippi State's Darius Slay, Boise State's Jamar Taylor and Washington's Desmond Trufant and Connecticut's Blidi Wreh-Wilson.

Many of them would be ideal fits in the type of zone scheme new Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will run.

Some of those players made some money Tuesday with impressive workouts at the NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Five of the top-rated corners had sub 4.4 times in the 40-yard dash, a benchmark for corners — Slay (4.36), Milliner (4.37), Trufant (4.38), Taylor (4.39) and Alford (4.39).

Two of the higher ranked corners also had outstanding vertical jumps, as Alford jumped 40 inches and Rhodes went 40.5. Rhodes also had a 4.41 40-yard dash.

Milliner, Rhodes and Trufant now are the best bets to go in the first round, though a number of others could as well.

Banks had been considered a potential first rounder, but he did not show well here. His 40 time of 4.61 was a disappointment, as was his vertical jump of 34 inches and his bench press (10 reps of 225 pounds).

Banks now is looking more like a second-rounder, and that round should have exceptional value at cornerback.

Whether it's the second round, the first or even a later round, the Bears are likely to address their hidden need on draft weekend.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei

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