The Bears’ biggest need on their defense is on their defensive line. That said, it wouldn’t be surprising for them to invest in another starting cornerback this offseason.
With how much cap space and draft capital Chicago has to work with this year, it would be a total shock if they didn’t invest significant resources into both the defensive tackle and defensive end positions. There is a quality defensive line class in free agency — especially at defensive tackle — and two of the top prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft are defensive linemen.
Assuming they do so, that provides the chance to truly prioritize the best possible value over need in the draft, even more so than teams already do.
The Bears have Jaylon Johnson locked into a starting role for at least the 2023 season, and Kyler Gordon picked up the slack down the stretch and looked the part of a potential long-term starter after a tough start to his rookie campaign. The remainder of the cornerback room is a bit of a question mark, though, with Kindle Vildor projecting best as a depth piece and nobody else on the roster appearing to be starting-caliber on a long-term basis.
Should the Bears look to address their lone secondary need through the draft — which Ryan Poles displayed a penchant towards doing by drafting Gordon and Jaquan Brisker — they’ll have a pretty deep class to choose from.
To highlight a cornerback class I think Bears fans haven’t talked about enough as a potential option, I’ve decided to share my top 15 cornerbacks and break them up into three tiers.
Tier 1: Immediate impact players
1. Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
Gonzales is a lot of fun to watch. He’s lengthy with a pro-ready frame at 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, and he’s a super fluid athlete with loose hips guarding sharp-breaking routes and defending in press-bail, especially for his height. His deep speed, jab timing and placement in quick-jam press along the boundary, and improvement in ball skills over the years project him as my CB1. These traits could see him go as high as the top 10.
2. Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
Every time I watch Witherspoon, he continues to climb up my board. He’s such an intelligent processor in the secondary, he attacks the ball incredibly well in the air, he’s super fluid, and he plays with a willing edge as a tackler. He’s a Day 1 starter at either outside cornerback spot with the potential to contribute at a high level right away in the NFL.
3. Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
Porter fits that mold of “I don’t have to watch much more of him than I already have because I feel confident he’ll be good right away” (see Sauce Gardner). He’s not to the caliber of Sauce, but he’s still a lengthy, physical, gritty boundary cornerback who’s smart and does a good job of staying sticky inside a receiver’s hip pocket.
Tier 2: Solid Day 1 starters
4. Cam Smith, South Carolina
From a physicality perspective, Smith fits the bill as an instant Day 1 boundary starter at the next level. He’s willing and capable of competing at the catch point and hand-fighting through a receiver’s stems, he’s fluid dropping back in coverage, and he has the confidence that is needed to serve as a team’s CB1. If he can gain a little weight and improve as a tackling technician, the ceiling for him is quite high.
5. Kelee Ringo, Georgia
Ringo had some serious ups and downs in 2022, and he’s not a finished product from an instincts perspective, which has him falling a bit down my board. That said, his combination of length, speed and fluidity gives him arguably the highest physical ceiling of any cornerback in this class, so he could still go Round 1 off of upside.
6. Clark Phillips III, Utah
I feel like people forget how good Phillips is simply because he’s been a notable draft prospect for quite some time. He more than held his own against the likes of Drake London and Jaxon Smith-Njigba last year — don’t let JSN’s stat line fool you; when Phillips was on him, it was an extremely competitive battle. He’s a loose athlete with very good speed and coordination in his backpedal. For someone who’s shorter, he’s a willing downhill tackler.
7. Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State
If you’re looking for ball production, look no further than Forbes, who had 14 interceptions, 20 pass deflections and 6 defensive touchdowns in 3 seasons. He’s a dynamic athlete with good deep speed and super loose hips, and his ball-tracking abilities are just as good as one would expect for someone with his level of production. He’s a good field-side corner who doesn’t have tremendous play strength, but he’s a super fun watch.
8. Deonte Banks, Maryland
Banks got drafted in the first round of Dane Brugler’s most recent mock draft, and while I’m not quite to that level with him, he has been rising up my board over the last month or two. He’s a lengthy boundary corner with inside-outside versatility, a physical edge, above-average route-recognition skills and seamless ability to pick up routes and rub them off to safeties in zone coverage. I don’t think he’s an elite athlete, but he should be a solid starter.
9. Eli Ricks, Alabama
Ricks didn’t live up to national expectations in 2022, but he still quietly had a solid campaign. He has great size along the boundary and showcases very good body control, ball-tracking skills and solid athletic ability. He’s a bit high in his backpedal and has his struggles as a tackler, but with some polishing, he could be a quality starter in the league.
Tier 3: Future starters
10. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCU
Over the last 3 seasons, Hodges-Tomlinson has broken up 35 passes, and he allowed a completion percentage of just 26.1% in 2022. He’s small and will likely be limited to the slot at the next level, but his level of intelligence, ball skills and scrappy edge could see him develop into one of the top nickelbacks in the NFL.
11. Garrett Williams, Syracuse
Had it not been for a season-ending torn ACL, Williams would be much higher on my board than he will end up being. He has three seasons of legitimate ball production at the ACC level, and he’s a fluid, intelligent cornerback who projects well as a field-side contributor pretty early in his career if he recovers well from his injury.
12. Jaylon Jones, Texas A&M
Jones isn’t a finished product, as his instincts in diagnosing his assignments in zone coverage are hit or miss, and his center of gravity is a bit high. That said, he’s a former five-star recruit with great size, a physical brand of football and an aggressive edge as a tackler, so he could be a player worth developing for the future.
13. Mekhi Garner, LSU
Garner broke out by allowing completions on just 29.5% of targets thrown his way after spending his previous three seasons as a quality contributor for Louisiana. His athleticism along the boundary isn’t fantastic, and he didn’t have an interception in three of his four collegiate seasons, but he’s physical with great size, long arms and an aggressive mentality in man coverage.
14. Kyu Blu Kelly, Stanford
His pad level is a bit high, his footwork in his backpedal is a bit choppy, and he has a pretty skinny frame. However, Kelly is a super sharp field-side cornerback who diagnoses well in zone coverage, has long arms, good fluidity, and an NFL bloodline — his father, Brian, was a cornerback who played in the league for 11 seasons.
15. DJ Turner, Michigan
Turner finishes his collegiate career his 17 pass deflections in his last two seasons, and though his physical ceiling isn’t sky high, he’s an athletic field-side defender with quick feet, a high football IQ and very nice deep speed who especially offers potential in Cover-3 situations at the next level.