As expected, the Chicago Bears parted ways with both general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy at the end of the 2021 regular season. The results didn't always present themselves on the field, and their personnel decisions were head-scratching at times.
So now the team is moving forward in a different direction. Ryan Poles, who was previously the Kansas City Chiefs' executive director of player personnel, was hired as the new general manager on Jan. 25. Shortly after that, Poles hired former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to be the team's new head coach.
The Bears have 24 pending unrestricted free agents on their roster (per Spotrac.com) and also have some decisions to make about veteran players that are under contract. It'll be the job of the new front office and coaching staff to decide which players will be a part of the rebuilding effort. Three of the cornerbacks from last year's roster are pending free gent agents, meaning they will be able to sign anywhere they want later this month.
The Bears have a void to fill at this position, as none of last year's corners were able to consistently fill the role that Kyle Fuller held down from 2018-20. Chicago struggled in pass coverage more often than not last year, mainly because Jaylon Johnson couldn't cover everybody. This is the main issue that the Bears must address.
The Bears have been using a 3-4 alignment since 2015 but will be transitioning to a 4-3 under Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams. It's a scheme that will be familiar to Bears fans but it's too soon to tell how it will look in 2022 given the current personnel. For now, here is how the Bears stack up at cornerback.
The Bears' second-round pick (50th overall) in the 2020 draft, Johnson has done nothing but deliver since getting on the field. He had another strong season in 2021, posting 46 tackles along with a team-high nine pass deflections. He also recorded an interception and forced a fumble. He missed two games due to COVID-19 protocols, but otherwise, he was reliable whenever he was on out there. Johnson was the clear bright spot for a position that was the weakest on Chicago's defense last season. He's signed for two more seasons, and the priority for the new front office is finding him a solid running mate.
This second-year man out of Georgia Southern started 12 of 17 games last season in his bid to solidify the other cornerback spot. He was credited with 46 tackles, was fourth on the team with four pass deflections, and recorded a sack. He struggled at times in coverage but wasn't a complete liability either. He's under contract for two more seasons and will figure prominently in the plans at cornerback, but he is probably best suited for a backup role.
Shelley has been with the Bears since 2019 but has offered minimal on-field production. He's recorded 53 tackles and four pass deflections in 30 games. He's entering the final year of his rookie contract and will need to take a big step forward this season to improve his potential market.
After sitting out the 2020 season due to the pandemic, Burns signed with the Bears to bolster their cornerback depth. He appeared in 11 games, making six starts, but didn't offer a lot for the stat sheet. He made 23 tackles with six pass deflections. He was a productive member of the Steelers' secondary prior to sitting a year out, and the soon-to-be 27-year-old will be leaning on that track record as he's set to hit free agency. Chicago could be interested in bringing him back, but it will probably come down to how many other teams show an interest in signing Burns.
Crawford has primarily been a special teams player for the Bears the past two seasons. He has appeared in 16 games in this span, including two starts last season. As an exclusive right free agent (ERFA), Chicago can re-sign Crawford to a one-year deal at the league minimum based on his years of service (three). Per the current CBA, that should put him at $965,000. Based on the team's current cap situation (estimated between $25-$30 million) and many areas of need, it's possible that Crawford will be retained for another season.
Last year was Tabor's first regular-season of action since 2018 (spent '19 and '20 on the 49ers practice squad), and he left much to be desired. He had just eight tackles in six games of action. He'll be a restricted free agent, which means the Bears will have the opportunity to match any offer he receives, but Tabor probably won't have a bunch of teams looking to sign him given his résumé. He should at least get an invite to training camp, which could be the route Chicago takes to keep Tabor around.
Thomas Graham Jr.
A sixth-round pick last year, Graham began the season on the practice squad. He was elevated to the active roster for four games as injuries and COVID-19 cases piled up. Graham wound up making 13 tackles with four pass deflections. He's under team control for three more seasons and now has a golden opportunity to prove himself to the new coaching staff.
He appeared in one game for the Bears towards the end of last season after starting it in Indianapolis. His familiarity with Eberflus, Williams, and other Colts assistants now in Chicago could help him carve out a bigger role, if he earns it. He's signed to a reserve/future contract for 2022.
No, he's not THAT Lamar Jackson. This one played his college ball at Nebraska and spent the last two seasons with the Jets. He appeared in 14 games, making two starts, recording 28 tackles and two pass deflections. Signed to a reserve/future deal, the soon-to-be 24-year-old has a fresh start with a new team undergoing a leadership and coaching change.
He only played in one game for the Bears last year and was signed to a reserve/future contract for the 2022 season.
Unless the asking price is too steep, it seems highly likely that the Bears will sign at least one veteran cornerback in free agency. Expect another to be added through the draft and for the competition during training camp at this position to be fierce with so many jobs up for grabs.
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.