LAKE FOREST – It’s difficult to glean much information from the first organized team activity with regard to the schematic changes coordinator Mel Tucker envisions for his defense. But the biggest takeaway from the Bears’ first OTA on Tuesday was the potential new role of former Pro Bowl cornerback Tim Jennings, after the Bears spent the 14th overall pick on fellow CB Kyle Fuller.
In the Bears’ first seven-on-seven drill, Jennings slid inside to cover the slot receiver, while Fuller and Charles Tillman manned the perimeter. Jennings, who signed a four-year contract extension in January that includes nearly $12 million guaranteed, said when he first arrived in Chicago, in 2010, he wanted to play nickel.
“I wanted to get on the field as much as I can and as quick as I can,” Jennings said. “Whatever it was going to take. … It’s the same mindset, I want to be on the field, I want to stay on the field. If they ask me to move inside so we can get Kyle on the field, or have Kyle move inside and I stay outside, whatever it takes.”
Jennings, who occasionally played inside earlier in his career with the Colts, said the change – which he didn’t learn about until last week – is an adjustment.
“You’re just another linebacker, an athletic linebacker,” said the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Jennings. “I’ve got to get used to seeing different people, different formations with my eyes and being able to see different things with my keys. It should be a couple days going out there I’ll be back in the groove.”
A slot cornerback’s responsibilities include matching up with receivers of all shapes and sizes. Green Bay’s Randall Cobb is 5-10, 192 pounds, and the Lions aligned Calvin Johnson (6-5, 236 pounds) inside frequently last season, as well. The inside cornerback, as Jennings points out, also is required to be a physical, fearless run defender – an area where, unlike much of the Bears’ defense last season, Jennings has shined.
“I’m going to have to be in on runs a lot more,” he said. “If every guy is doing their job the way they’re supposed to be doing it, I think it makes all our jobs a lot easier. … It should be an easy transition. We’ve got the guys in place. It was a pretty good transition today.”
After losing veteran Kelvin Hayden to a season-ending knee injury suffered in training camp last year, the Bears were forced to rely on inexperienced second-year player Isiah Frey. In a tough spot, Frey didn’t prove to be a liability – but he hardly proved himself as a dynamic playmaker, either.
That’s exactly what Jennings has been over his past three seasons with the Bears. He led the NFL with nine picks in 2012, and he added four interceptions and three forced fumbles as the Bears' most consistent defender a season ago.
Jennings, who also was seen fielding punts at one point Tuesday, said having Tillman back – “Peanut” signed a one-year deal this offseason – is a “breath of fresh air.” He said the biggest challenge right now – even bigger than learning a new position – is learning more about his new teammates.
“The biggest challenge is remembering who is who. Right now, everybody is a number; everybody is fighting for a spot,” he said. “… Right now, everybody is watching somebody just to see what they could bring to this team. The coaches, even the players, just to know who is going to be there and who you can count on to get the job done.”
The Bears could be counting on Jennings, who already has proved to be selfless, also bringing his playmaking flare to the nickel position for them in 2014.