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Tillman Needs To Return If Bears Want To Secure Their Defense

By Steve Silverman-

(CBS) The Bears can look at the numbers and say they would be better off letting Charles "Peanut" Tillman walk away in free agency and sign with somebody else.

They can look at his age – 33 when the season starts – his triceps injury and a balky knee and think that he is not the player he once was. That would probably be an accurate assessment, but it would be a huge mistake to let Tillman go without putting up a fight for him.

Despite the injury that left him on the sidelines for the majority of the 2013 season, Tillman does not have a history of getting hurt and missing work. While it seems likely that he may have a hard time remaining a productive player as he gets older, he is simply too special to lump in some barrel along with other cornerbacks and think that he doesn't have a lot of game left.

Tillman, of course, is one special player. He has 36 career interceptions for the Bears since coming out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2003, and he has returned eight of them for touchdowns. He also is the master of the ball punch and has forced 40 fumbles during his career.

That's something that other defensive backs simply don't do. Dick "Night Train" Lane was perhaps the most intimidating defensive back in NFL history, and he would regularly force fumbles when he played with the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions from 1952 through 1965. Forced fumbles was not an official stat back then, but he forced quite a few of them.

However, he didn't come close to forcing as many as Tillman.

Tillman's a special player, and if the Bears let him walk, they are not going to replace him in free agency or the draft. If they were lucky, they could find a talented defensive back in the draft who can punish opponents with his hard hitting and cover NFL-caliber receivers. But it will be years before a player can contribute as consistently as Tillman.

Tillman is a player from the old Jerry Angelo-Lovie Smith regime, and if you think that doesn't impact Phil Emery, you would be wrong. That doesn't mean Emery wouldn't bite the bullet and bring him back, but the transaction might come with just a bit of bile backwash for the Bears general manager.

It would be easy to send Tillman packing, especially when you know he is looking for a multi-year contract. Tillman would probably like four years. The Bears and most teams that are interested in him would probably like to give him no more than two years. Three years would be a fair compromise.

Nobody is saying the Bears have to break the bank to bring him back. But after deciding to give cornerback Tim Jennings a four-year, $22.4-million deal, they can make sure the cornerback position is secure once again by bringing back Tillman.

Tillman earned $7.95 million last year, and that figure is probably a bit out of reach. However, a three-year, $18-million contract offer would almost certainly keep him in the fold and keep him from getting to free agency when it opens March 11.

The Bears have to look at the competition in the NFC North and think long and hard before they let Tillman go. The Bears have to face Calvin Johnson in Detroit, a slew of top receivers led by Jordy Nelson in Green Bay and Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson in Minnesota.

The Bears have the best lockdown corner in team history. He has slowed by a degree, but he can still run, punch the ball and cover receivers. Letting Tillman go would be a gamble that would likely cost the Bears another poor defensive season.

If they sign Tillman and secure the cornerback position, they can go all out in their pursuit of a pass-rushing lineman or a linebacker who can tackle.

The Seahawks, 49ers and Panthers have proved that defense still counts in the NFL, and if the Bears don't get on that track, they will likely face another non-playoff season.

Follow Steve on Twitter @profootballboy and read more of his columns here.

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