Returning to our position-by-position breakdowns as we close in on being a week away from the first practice of the summer at Olivet Nazarene University, we focus on the cornerbacks.
Projected starters: LCB Charles Tillman, 6-1, 198, 7th season, Louisiana-Lafayette; Nathan Vasher, 5-10, 187, 6th season, Texas.
Zack Bowman, 6-1, 193, 2nd season, Nebraska
Rudy Burgess, 5-10, 185, 1st season, Arizona State
*Corey Graham, 6-0, 198, 3rd season, New Hampshire
Marcus Hamilton, 5-11, 185, 2nd season, Virginia
Danieal Manning, 5-11, 202, 4th season, Abilene Christian
Trumaine McBride, 5-9, 181, 3rd season, Ole Miss
D.J. Moore, 5-9, 183, Rookie, Vanderbilt
Woodny Turenne, 6-0, 184, Rookie, Louisville
* Graham will be listed in the safety preview also. The Bears list him on their Web site as a safety but that move might not be permanent at this point.
Projected depth chart
LCB: Tillman, Bowman or Graham
RCB: Vasher, Bowman or Graham, Moore
2009 salary cap numbers
Zack Bowman $315,200
Rudy Burgess $315,200
Corey Graham $502,575
Marcus Hamilton $390,200
Danieal Manning $885,200
Trumaine McBride $479,012
D.J. Moore $426,688
Charles Tillman $4,716,666
Woodny Turenne $310,333
Nathan Vasher $4,866,666
Number of cornerbacks on the roster at the start of the 2008 season: 5 (including Manning, who the Bears list as a safety)
Projected number of cornerbacks on 2009 roster at start of the season: 6 (including Manning and Graham)
The skinny: What could have been the beginning of turnover at the position looks to be halted by the re-emergence of Vasher during the offseason program. While Ricky Manning Jr. fell into the coaching staff's dog house a year before and was never seen again, Vasher has worked himself out of it. At least that is the way it looks right now. The veteran and former Pro Bowl performer lined up with the first team throughout the offseason program, and we're reminded of what general manager Jerry Angelo told us after the draft: "I feel he will come back strong. I felt like last year he was ready. During this time last year, during training camp, I thought he did really well. He got off to a poor start of the season in terms of making plays, lack of, I don't know what that did to his psyche one way or the other. We just didn't see the same swagger, the same ballhawk that we know and came to love when you talk about Nate. Do I feel that he has that? Yes. I don't see any diminishing of his skills and I feel this guy is a great competitor and his back is to the wall. I expect him to come out and give us really good football and we're going to see the guy we paid. I have a lot of confidence in Nate. Saying all that, he's got to go out and do it. He's got to do that and he knows that.''
Vasher has played in only 12 games since receiving his contract extension two summers ago, but he slimmed down during a little during OTA's and looked to be in good shape. If he can bounce back it will go a long way toward stabilizing a secondary that didn't give up the big play a lot last season, but surrendered just about everything else. Tillman played with bad shoulders in 2008 and eventually required surgery to reconstruct one in the offseason. That's got to be a concern considering he went through shoulder surgery a few offseasons back. For his part, Tillman said he can't think about his shoulders when he's on the field. His physical nature is what sets him apart from others at his position and that's a big part of his game.
Graham leapfrogged McBride as the No. 3 guy and thus got plenty of action as a starter in Vasher's absence. With Graham potentially in the mix at free safety, we view that as a sign that the team believes Vasher is poised to perform well. We're not going to discount the possibility Graham winds up back at corner or perhaps in the mix at nickel with Danieal Manning. Bowman made the kind of noise during the offseason program that Graham made a year ago. He's a rangy performer who needs to prove he can stay on the field. He had a freak biceps injury in the only game he appeared in as a rookie, but battled multiple knee injuries while in school. Sometimes guys are just prone to injury and that might have been one reason the team pulled the trigger on Moore, who was called a value pick for the fourth round. The thing about Moore is you don't see starters his size, not often any way, and he's not 5-9. That makes it difficult to project him as a starter down the road. McBride faces a numbers crunch with Moore on board.
The upside: Tillman might not ever reach Pro Bowl level, but when he's on his game he's probably at the next level of corners in the league, and in that role he's as valuable as any other defender on the field. The upside would be more than 10 interceptions between the two starters, and it would have to include an all-around performance by Manning as the nickel back. That's a tough position that demands a lot and if he can provide a nice combination of tackles, picks and sacks, the secondary could look much different under new position coach Jon Hoke. Nothing will help this group more than a rejuvenated pass rush.
The downside: Vasher is injured or otherwise finds himself on the sideline and neither Graham nor Bowman can step forward and play at a level above being a fill-in. Graham was solid at times last season and certainly got a lot of action as offenses tried to work on him.
On the hot seat: Vasher. He's got the highest cap number in the secondary and while he's not in jeopardy of being a cap casualty, the Bears are anxious to see a return on their investment. He's been injured for the last two seasons--suffering a groin muscle tear in 2007 and wrist and hand injuries last year--and the good news is they're not expected to create performance issues for him moving forward. He's going to have to return close to an elite level with a base salary of $2.9 million this season and $2.95 million in 2010.
Final thought: The Bears were very fortunate to have a run there for a few seasons where they didn't have to worry about their cornerbacks. Tillman and Vasher formed a solid tandem and were young and cheap. Now, they're experienced and no longer cheap but if they're playing well they come at a fair price. Tillman wasn't interested in making the move to free safety that was talked about so much at the beginning of the offseason, and the Bears would have been making a big error moving their best cornerback to fill a spot that is not as important. Most defensive coaches we know will list a pass rusher as their first choice when building a defense and a cover man as their second choice if they were able to start from scratch and all things were equal.