If you watched the Chicago Bears last season, you probably saw a defense that couldn’t get stops and a team that looked nothing like its former self. For a franchise built by legendary linebackers and renowned for tough, hard-nosed defenses, the Monsters of the Midway had to face a dark reality last season: becoming one of the worst defenses in team history. An aggressive stint in free agency helped to plug up some of the holes, but as the draft approaches the Bears must look to shore up the defensive backfield.
And so the question becomes, which position needs help the most?
Over the past decade nothing has been more fundamental to the success of the Bears’ defense than turnovers, and no player better at forcing them than Charles Tillman. Since joining the team in 2003, Tillman has 8 career interception-return touchdowns, tying the most by a cornerback in team history. And his 36 forced fumbles are the most by a defensive back during the same span. He has been the face of the defensive backfield since joining the team, becoming one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league. But after a season-ending injury exposed the lack of depth behind Tillman, it became clear the Bears needed help at corner. At 33 years old and on a one-year contract it’s past time the Bears find a replacement for this all-time great.
With Aaron Rodgers and Calvin Johnson battling in the division, the cornerback position must be solidified for this team. Despite a few quality veterans on the roster, the Bears must find young talent to bring in, not only to ensure the long-term future but also to give the Bears some much needed depth, and hopefully day one starters. The draft should boast several future stars at the cornerback position, but one stands out to me.
Justin Gilbert, cornerback, Oklahoma State University
In my mind there is no player I would rather see the Bears draft at pick number 14 than the top cornerback in the Nation, 22-year-old Justin Gilbert.
Without Tillman, an eventual and impending reality for this team, the Bears really don’t have a number one guy to come in and fill in his shoes. Justin Gilbert is that guy.
The four-year star had quite a career for Oklahoma State, starting in all 39 games during his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons, proving to be reliable, consistent, and most of all explosive. In 2013 he set the Big 12 Conference record with six career kick return touchdowns, a much-needed skill for the Bears after the departure of Devin Hester.
What appeals to me most about this young talent is his performance at the combine. The 6-foot Gilbert clocked in with a 4.35 40 time, the fastest at the NFL combine. An athlete that can run that fast and can play the cornerback position as well as he can should be a no-brainer for the Bears.
The young man is as durable as they come, makes big plays for the defense (in 2013 he managed seven INTs, returning two for TDs), and has ideal size and speed for the cornerback position. With Tillman providing guidance and leadership, at least through his rookie season, there is no question the potential is there for Justin Gilbert to be a star for the Chicago Bears.
However, it’s unlikely he’ll drop to the Bears at 14. If he’s gone, there is another guy who stand out to me.
Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State University
Prior to the NFL combine, the player I wanted the Bears to draft in the first round was Darqueze Dennard, cornerback for Michigan State. The 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner (awarded to the best cornerback in the Nation) proved to be invaluable for the Spartans’ top-rated, hard-nosed defense, as they went 12-1 with him starting every game. His ball skills proved to be as good as Gilbert’s, picking off four passes while being considered the best cover corner in college football. He’s even picked up the nickname “No Fly Zone”. Next to Gilbert, he’s the guy I want the Bears to draft, but an inch shorter and with a 4.51 40 time, Dennard simply isn’t the same caliber prospect that Gilbert is.
In the end the draft will dictate who the Bears end up taking, but in order to contend now and in the future the team must walk away deeper in the secondary.