Charles Tillman made his first appearance in an NFL game in Week 1 of his rookie season. He made four tackles and, of course, forced a fumble. He made his first start in Week 4, a 24-21 victory over the Raiders, making six tackles and getting his first pass breakup. Over the course of his rookie year, Tillman would collect 86 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, a sack, four interceptions, 12 pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.
Not bad for a rookie.
Tillman ascended to the starter’s role quickly despite the presence of veterans R.W. McQuarters and Jerry Azumah. That 7-9 squad offered little hope on offense (shocker) but showed off a few building blocks of a great defense around the already established star of Brian Urlacher. Those names included a couple of rookies in Lance Briggs and the new CB1 - Charles Tillman.
With all due respect to some good players in the Bears long history, they are not particularly deep at cornerback. Bennie McRae played good football for the Bears throughout most of the 60s and Leslie Frazier’s time in Chicago was simply cut too short by injuries. Donnell Woolford toiled in the desert of Bears football in the 90s, making a Pro Bowl in 1993, the first Bears CB to do so in the modern era. It’s hard to make the case that any of those players truly established greatness for a long period of time in Chicago.
Tillman ascended to the lead CB role ten years after the Wolf made his lone Pro Bowl, and started a chain that will hopefully last long into the future. Tillman had a forgettable 2004, missing half the season with injury, but started a string of eight straight Pro Bowl worthy seasons before the triceps injury derailed him in 2013. Tillman’s last start for the Chicago Bears came in 2014, in Week 2 against the 49ers. Lost to injury for the year, Tillman watched rookie Kyle Fuller fill in admirably, intercepting two balls and establishing himself as a rookie ready to play.
The first-round pick started the next week and proceeded to make every start the rest of the season and started every game in five of the next six seasons (Fuller missed the entire 2016 season). While the Virginia Tech Hokie didn’t have the penchant for punch-outs like Tillman, he played at a high level, matching Tillman’s post-season honors with two Pro Bowls and a First-Team All-Pro selection.
Fuller benefited from Tillman’s mentorship in his rookie year and found himself in the mentor’s role in 2020 with rookie Jaylon Johnson. Wearing the same number as Tillman, Johnson started Week 1 opposite Tillman, breaking up 3 Matthew Stafford passes in a 27-23 win over the Lions. Johnson would go on to finish his promising rookie campaign with 15 pass breakups but missed the final 3 contests with a shoulder issue.
While Fuller and Johnson made an exciting pair, it would mirror the Tillman-Fuller duo as it was cut short before it could really establish itself. The Bears moved on from Kyle Fuller, cutting their All-Pro CB in a cap-saving move. He was signed by Denver to reunite with Vic Fangio about 17 minutes later. Because of this move, the mantle of CB1 moves over to Johnson, who certainly has the confidence to make it happen.
The hope for the current #33 is that he can stay healthy. A recurring shoulder issue will be a concern for the Bears and that shoulder needs to hold up if he hopes to duplicate the success of his predecessors. While Bears fans should remain hopeful this legacy will continue with Johnson, the Bears should prioritize investment in an outside corner again soon to form a great cornerback duo.
Tillman was paired with Tim Jennings from 2010 to 2014. While Tillman was dominating competition during his peak years, quarterbacks threw to the other side, where Jennings lay in wait, poaching a league-high 9 balls in 2012. Jennings made two Pro Bowls playing opposite Tillman, forming an impressive 1-2 punch. That’s the kind of legacy the Bears need to invest in moving forward.
So, here’s to Jaylon Johnson. May his health allow him to fill the legacy started by Charles Tillman and carried by Kyle Fuller. Here’s to the Bears front office. May they see the wisdom of giving Johnson a partner to run with long-term to give QBs no good options when trying to pass on the Bears.
Will Jaylon Johnson carry the CB1 legacy for the Bears? Should the Bears prioritize drafting another CB soon to pair with Johnson? Let me know in the comments or find me on Twitter @gridironborn.