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Charles Tillman tops list of Bears cornerbacks, experts say

Charles Tillman is only player have 20 forced fumbles 20 interceptions since 2003. | Lynne Sladky~AP

Charles Tillman is the only player to have 20 forced fumbles and 20 interceptions since 2003. | Lynne Sladky~AP

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Updated: November 22, 2011 11:13AM

When you think of current Bears who rank among the team’s all-time greats, linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher leap to mind.

Charles Tillman might not, and that says a lot about the cornerback known more for forcing fumbles than making game-turning interceptions. But according to three Bears experts, he is worthy of being grouped with the team’s elite at his position despite never appearing in a Pro Bowl.

“Sometimes when I can’t get to sleep at night I think about who I would have on my all-time Bears team, and I always have trouble with cornerback,” said Charles Brizzolara, whose father was George Halas’ friend and business partner. “There have been no outstanding cornerbacks since the two platoon era started. Looking at one-way players, Tillman is one of the better ones. I have to go along with that.

As team historians, few can rival Brizzolara, whose memory reaches back to 1938. Jeff ­Davis is the author of Papa Bear: The Life and Legacy of George Halas, and Roy Taylor’s is the best online source for Bears historical information.

After mulling it over, they all agreed that few — if any — have been better than “Peanut.”

“He’s in their league,” Davis said. “He’s developed a longevity now. He’s had some injuries that would’ve ended a lot of careers. He keeps coming back and is just as good as he was.”

Tillman’s longevity is what many other candidates lack. It’s difficult for a cornerback to hide after losing half a step, and that might be why so few have long careers. Leslie Frazier, for example, would’ve ranked higher on the list if not for a knee injury suffered while returning a punt in the first half of Super Bowl XX.

Tillman’s eighth season might have been his best. His five interceptions in 2010 tied a career high and upped his career total to 27, tying him with Bennie McRae for fourth in team history. The South Side native’s 24 forced fumbles are the most among NFL defensive backs since 2003 and tied for eighth among all positions. He’s the only player to have 20 forced fumbles and 20 interceptions in that span.

“I’m really just thinking about the present,” Tillman said before training camp. “If I start thinking about the legacy I’m going to leave behind in this game, it’s probably time for me to retire. Right now, I don’t feel like it’s my time to think about retiring or my legacy. When I need to, I’ll start thinking about that, and it will be cool when you all tell me stories like this.

“For now, I’m having fun playing football. I’m having a ball with the team I’m on. The guys I play with, we make up an elite defense. Being around those guys makes it fun. Without them, I don’t play good.”

All-time Bears teams often include George McAfee and Red Grange at cornerback, though both forged their Hall of Fame careers at running back.

“George McAfee was a magnificent cornerback,” Brizzolara said. “There wasn’t anything he didn’t do extraordinarily well. He was a wonderful tackler for a relatively small man. He had a great burst of speed. His offensive abilities were dimmed by injuries before the 1946 season and again in ’47, but he was always a great defensive back.”

McRae, who enjoyed a 10-year career, was a standout cornerback for the Bears’ 1963 NFL championship team. J.C. Caroline might have been the best of all. Dave Whitsell’s career overlapped those of McRae and Caroline and gave the Bears one of the most dominant defensive backfields in the league in the 1960s.

“He was always a really, really good corner,” Brizzolara said of Caroline. “Ask [Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame receiver] Ray Berry. After a couple games when Berry was on his way to the locker room, he was looking around to see if Caroline was still after him.”

Taylor recently studied the Bears’ history at cornerback and ranked Frazier as the fourth-best since 1973. He had Allan Ellis third, Donnell Woolford second and Tillman first.

Try as he might, he couldn’t find anyone else worth adding to the list.

“The Bears have fielded solid or all-time great defenses in three different eras since 1977, but surprisingly the list of the greatest cornerbacks is quite short,” Taylor concluded. “This shocks me when I look at it, but it would be a difficult argument to add anyone to this list.”

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