The Bears picked Tim Jennings off the free agent scrap heap two seasons ago, and seized onto the second starting cornerback job after Zackary Bowman was handed it and dropped it faster than Roy Williams drops hard passes thrown at him too hard. Last season he started fifteen games for the Bears, was credited with no touchdowns against by Pro Football Focus, was later named this offseason as PFF's Secret Superstar for the Bears, and was reinserted into the starting lineup after a reactionary benching and a prompt realization the Bears had just started Bowman in that game.
This year, according to defensive backs coach Jon Hoke, Jennings has the starting role to start, but that Kelvin Hayden will have every shot to beat him out.
I get the whole "competition breeds a better player" thing, but I'm having a hard time justifying any need for a competition here - he's earned the shot to be the number 2 cornerback for the entire season, yet it seems like the coaches are more than willing to try to hand him a ticket out of town.
Let's start by looking back through some of the recaps and Notes, Scribbles, and Things Jotted Down that I wrote over the course of last season - the main source of any and all gripes that I have with any players at any given time. And the biggest complaints I keep coming across are his hands - all the "almost-interceptions" that hit him right in the hands. If that's seriously the biggest complaint we have with Jennings... That's all well and good; I mean, we're only talking about what Lovie Smith predicates his defense on, quarterback pressure and takeaways.
But the guy we're talking about replacing Jennings with - Hayden - had two interceptions last season in 8 games. Fine and dandy. He also had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in 2010 (his only two INTs that season). And he had another interception in 2009. Problem is, Jennings has the same total number of interceptions in those three seasons (5) plus eleven more pass deflections (27 versus 16 for Hayden). Throw in Jennings' relative durability (over the last four years he's only not played in one game, versus 26 over the same time frame for Hayden).
Hayden's a very solid backup/third cornerback, don't get me wrong (and remember, I'm an Illini guy myself). He offers a little more size, sure - but that's 5' 10" as opposed to 5' 8", not much of an improvement, and despite being in the league an extra year he and Jennings are the same age.
Bowman was an okay ballhawk when he was "on", but he lacked so badly in other areas of the game that even with a coach that loves interceptions, Bowman no longer had a place. It's possible the Bears could be making a mistake the other direction - even with a player that does other things well, it seems like they're trying to kick him off the starting spot just because he doesn't get enough interceptions. Hayden has the interceptions (on more of a per-game basis) and similar tackles, but isn't around the ball (nor on the field) enough otherwise.
And like I said, I get the "competition to make a better player" thing - it just doesn't seem like that's the case. Maybe Les will have something to say when he gets into Position Battles heading into preseason. Stay tuned!
What would you do with Tim Jennings heading into next season? What's your take on the situation?