Free Agent Focus: Charles Tillman
Next on my list of impending free agents that I want to take a deeper look at is Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman.
Tillman just turned 33 last weekend and is coming off a rough, injury-shortened season. But that advanced age coupled with his injury makes me believe that Tillman is going to be undervalued this offseason in free agency. It is similar to Charles Woodson a year ago, who missed nine games in 2012 at age 36. It led to Woodson garnering almost zero interest last offseason until the Oakland Raiders scooped him up at the end of May.
The Raiders were rewarded with the 28th-ranked safety in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus on a relatively modest one-year deal. I believe the odds are fairly good that a similar windfall could come for the team that signs Tillman.
It’s also interesting because there is talk that Tillman should move to safety at this point in his career, which centered around Woodson two years ago. Although I’m confident that Tillman will be able to make that transition and extend his NFL career a couple of seasons by doing so like Woodson has, I’m not sure that move is yet needed. Tillman has already indicated his reluctance to move to a new position.
He spent much of last season nursing knee and groin injuries, as he was unable to fully participate in a practice for the Bears between Weeks 2 and 9 last season. Then he tore his triceps once he managed to recover from those injuries, and finished the season on injured reserve.
The injuries definitely limited him. He gave up a couple of big plays when healthy to A.J. Green in the season opener, but also had a pair of interceptions in that game. He then battled injuries and got exposed quite a bit by the quicker Antonio Brown in Week 3. But once he was healthy again, he showcased his stuff against Calvin Johnson in Week 10.
- Has good size and length, making him a very effective press corner
- Physical run defender that will deliver hits and make open field tackles
- Has a knack for creating turnovers with good ball skills
- Diminished speed causes problems when defending the deep routes
- Has a history of getting safety help over the top due to Bears defensive scheme
- Durability is a concern due to advanced age
How He Fits in Atlanta…
Tillman brings many of the same things to the table that Asante Samuel brought, which are veteran leadership and savvy. But he also brings things that Samuel lacked which are size and physicality. And those are two things that the Falcons could certainly use a boost in.
The Falcons currently lack a big corner that can handle the larger receivers that they’ll be facing this upcoming season. While Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have flashed the ability to mix it up with bigger receivers like Vincent Jackson, they are far from proven in such a matchup. The Falcons are set to face the likes of Jackson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson, Calvin Johnson, Cordarelle Patterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Marques Colston, A.J. Green, Josh Gordon, Reuben Randle and Torrey Smith on their schedule this year. That baker’s dozen of receivers collectively average 6-3, 220 pounds. The Falconstop three corners: Trufant, Alford and Robert McClain average just over 5-10, 190 pounds.
That’s where a 6-2, 198-pound corner like Tillman could make an impact. It’d be great if Tillman’s knack for creating turnovers could also rub off on the team’s young cornerbacks. Tillman has forced 42 fumbles and picked off 36 passes in 11 seasons in the NFL. The Falcons young trio did alright for themselves in 2013, collectively forcing four forced fumbles and four interceptions, but Tillman can add a little more to a defense that struggled to create turnovers last year.
Tillman would most likely be a nickel cornerback for the Falcons but he’s not going to be playing in the slot. While he has gotten some reps there in the past, they have been limited and seemingly only when he’s been used to shadow Calvin Johnson. Instead, Tillman would be better used as an outside corner opposite Robert Alford, while Desmond Trufant slides inside to the slot. Trufant didn’t play that many snaps inside, but showed that he was competent in the role. And the Falcons would still have insurance in McClain in case that arrangement didn’t work out.
While Tillman isn’t really open to playing safety, it would be smart if the Falcons can convince him to play there some in certain sub-packages, particularly the dime. But because of Tillman’s reluctance to play the position, I don’t think he should be viewed as a potential replacement for Thomas DeCoud, who is expected to be cut in the coming days or weeks. But if the Falcons want to put six defensive backs on the field for the dime, Tillman gives them some flexibility because of his potential to play both the back end and also work underneath.
I also think Tillman’s presence could help the Falcons do a better job against Jimmy Graham when they face the New Orleans Saints in 2014. Tillman was effective at times when asked to line up against Graham in the Bears-Saints matchup last year. Tillman has the sort of size and his ability to play press might be more effective in handling Graham than Atlanta’s previous attempts have achieved. It is basically hoping that Tillman can do for Atlanta what Aqib Talib did for New England last year against Graham.
Similarly, the way the Bears used Tillman is similar to how the Pats used Talib last year. Talib’s size and physicality at the line of scrimmage was helped by consistently getting safety help over the top. While the Bears aren’t as strict a zone, Cover-2-based defense as probably popularly perceived, they still play quite a bit of that. Knowing that he has safety help on the back end, Tillman can be a bit more aggressive at the line, which plays to his strengths.
But obviously if Tillman is on the field and the Falcons opt to shade safety help to his side of the field, it puts the other corners on islands. While Trufant showed he could be capable of succeeding on an island last year, whether Alford is ready for that remains to be seen. It’s a bit of a gamble, but not a huge one given that the Falcons can always just fall back to going with their current trio of Alford, Trufant and McClain without changing up much.
The major concern for Tillman moving forward is durability concerns. He’s at an age where his ability to recover from injuries is going to be much more limited. The Bears experienced this in 2013 first-hand. Tillman has been relatively durable for much of his NFL career, missing only three games combined in his previous six seasons before 2013. Does last season represent a one-year aberration for him, or a sign of what is to come moving forward?
However, I do think some of those concerns are mitigated by having a player like Robert McClain that can fill in if need be, as well as the fact that Tillman will only be asked to be a nickel and situational player. There may be some weeks where the Falcons are going to be dealing with bigger wideouts that Tillman would garner more snaps because he presents a better matchup. Against, quicker guys that Tillman would likely struggle with, the Falcons may be better served to put McClain on the field more often.
The main asset that Tillman brings is size, experience, and toughness, three skills that no NFL team in today’s day and age should be without in their secondary.