Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman ventured into the free-agency market for a dalliance with former Bears coach Lovie Smith, who's now running the show in Tampa, but on Friday he returned to the Bears on a one-year deal.
Tillman listened to Lovie and the Bucs but ultimately decided to return for a 12th season with the Bears, who drafted him in the second round out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2003.
"Charles is one of the NFL's great players and a true leader on and off the field, and we're happy he will be staying in Chicago," Bears general manager Phil Emery said in a statement released Friday. "He remains the best in our game at forcing turnovers and always has brought a tough, physical presence to our secondary. Charles also has a special connection to the people and community across Chicago and we're excited for that to continue."
Tillman's deal is for slightly less than $3.5 million, according to a report by ESPN's Adam Caplan. Tillman made $8 million last season.
Tillman has a well-earned reputation as one of the greatest turnover creators in NFL history. His 42 forced fumbles are second most in the league since he joined the Bears as the 35th overall selection in 2003 and most among cornerbacks. He is the only player during that time with 30-plus interceptions and 30-plus forced fumbles. The 6-foot-2, 198-pound Tillman is third in team history with 36 interceptions and is the franchise leader in defensive return touchdowns (9), interception return touchdowns (8) and interception return yards (675).
"I'm glad that I'm still together with my classmate, Lance Briggs," Tillman told the Bears' website. "We've both started since the fourth game of our rookie season and will continue to play together. It's good to have a classmate. I can't say enough about that."
Tillman was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2012, when he had a combined 14 forced fumbles and 6 interceptions, 5 of which he returned for touchdowns. Last season he was voted the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year for his many charitable contributions and his Cornerstone Foundation that aids critically and chronically ill children.
The 33-year-old Tillman had missed just six starts in eight years until last season, when he was limited to eight starts because of chronic knee soreness and a torn triceps, which landed him on injured reserve for the final six games.
Tillman said there's "no doubt in my mind" he will rebound from his triceps injury.
"I'm very optimistic about my recovery," he said. "It gives you something to shoot for in terms of motivation. I guess you could say I have a chip on my shoulder from the standpoint that I didn't finish the season. So the chip on my shoulder is against myself because I got hurt. So that's my competition. I'm competing against myself to be better than I was last year."
Tillman's 944 career tackles are the fifth most in franchise history since the statistic was first officially recorded in 1971. His 132 pass breakups are fifth in the NFL since 2003.
Tillman's returns keeps him paired with fellow cornerback Tim Jennings, who has been to each of the past two Pro Bowls and signed a $22 million, four-year deal on Jan. 2 to remain with the Bears. Jennings has 13 interceptions over the previous two seasons, second in the NFL to the Seahawks' Richard Sherman, who has 16.
Kelvin Hayden, who entered last year's training camp as the Bears' No. 1 nickel corner before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury, also re-signed with the Bears on Feb. 28.
The Bears are still expected to select a cornerback fairly early in the draft May 8-10, considering the age of Tillman, Jennings (30) and Hayden, who will be 31 before the season begins.
Young corners Isaiah Frey and Derrick Martin are under contract, but two of last year's top backups, Zack Bowman (29) and Sherrick McManis (26), remain unrestricted free agents.
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