For most of this series we’re bringing you Secret Superstars who, for whatever reason, are flying under the radar; with the media and opposing teams slow to catch on to some excellent play. In this instance, though, I’m going to talk about a player who has been a starter for the past two seasons, but actually got benched in 2011.
This player is so secret that even his own coaching staff don’t fully appreciate his play, choosing to bench him for a poor outing rather than be thankful for the other 1,000 snaps that seemed to go under-appreciated and unnoticed. This is the life of the Cover-2 corner; nobody notices until you mess up.
Our 17th-ranked cornerback for 2011–despite his benching–the Chicago Bears’ Secret Superstar is none other than Tim Jennings.
All Down Hill From There
Tim Jennings has a Super Bowl ring. In his rookie year of 2006, he was part of the Indianapolis Colts team that took down the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Jennings was a second-round pick of the Colts in the 2006 draft who at the time were still relying on Jason David as a starter, but he was inactive for the Super Bowl itself.
The NFL is full of stories of rookies who made the big dance in their first year and then spend the rest of their careers trying to get back there. Jennings made another trip in 2009 in his final season with the Colts only to wind up on the losing side as the Saints came away with the Lombardi Trophy. This time Jennings actually saw the field, though he wasn’t given the start, which went to Jacob Lacey at RCB. Jennings played 35 snaps, and didn’t have the best day of his career, surrendering a catch each time he was targeted including a blown coverage that allowed Lance Moore to pick up significant yardage on a key third down.
The Colts allowed Jennings to hit free agency after that game and he was signed by the Chicago Bears for a pittance after receiving little interest. In a league full of passing, the Tampa-2 defense was losing proponents, and Cover-2 corners were not in demand.
Being Good at What You Do
There are plenty of coverages and defensive schemes in the NFL, and they come into and go out of fashion on a regular basis. Jennings was seen as strictly a Cover-2 corner, meaning he could play in zone, support the run, and keep things in front of him, but would struggle with his back to the quarterback and running deep with receivers. So far in his career he has played only in Cover-2 defenses, but since signing with the Bears he has looked a perfect fit for that scheme and been a pretty good player for the Bears in both of his starting seasons.
In 2010 he was our 16th-ranked CB in the league, and in 2011 he was 17th. In both seasons his coverage numbers were excellent, and combined he has allowed just 55.2% of targets for 11.5 yards per completion and a QB rating of 71.4 since he signed with Chicago. Last season he was one of only two starting corners not to allow a single touchdown, and though he only has three interceptions over the past two seasons he has added 10 more pass break-ups. Jennings was able to do that despite playing at LCB for the majority of his time in Chicago, 1,511 of his 2,069 snaps as a Bear. LCB is the open side for most (right handed) quarterbacks, and the side they most frequently target, usually to their top target. The Bears line up with Jennings, and not Tillman, usually manning that spot.
Add to that some impressive play against the run and you come to the conclusion that though Jennings might not pass for Darrelle Revis any time soon, he is very good in the scheme that Chicago employs and his numbers compare favorably to Charles Tillman, seen as one of the veteran stalwarts of the Chicago defense and in no danger of a trip to the bench any time soon.
It seems all too often in the NFL we judge players by what they can’t do, rather than what they can. It may be true that Jennings is not at his best in man coverage and would struggle badly in that type of defense, but that isn’t what the Bears run, so who cares? Jennings has been an excellent fit for the zone schemes that the Bears do run, and has been as good as Charles Tillman on the other side, but received none of the same recognition for it.
Though the Bears were angered by his Week 15 display against Seattle enough to bench him the following week, they quickly reinstated him into the starting lineup, and handed him a contract extension in March, locking him down for another two years at $6.6m. That remains a bargain for a player that won’t turn 29 until late in the season, and Chicago has probably locked down a quality starting corner for another two seasons at a very reasonable rate. If Jennings can continue the kind of play he has shown for the Bears he will earn that contract and then some.
It’s a buyer’s market for Cover-2 corners at the moment, and the Bears have bought themselves a good one in Tim Jennings. He may suffer the same slight that all Cover-2 corners have to live with, but the bottom line is that Tim Jennings makes things tough for opposing wide receivers, and isn’t that the job of a cornerback, whatever the scheme? Tim Jennings is the Chicago Bears Secret Superstar.