Why the 49ers Need to Make a Push for Charles Tillman in Free Agency

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Why the 49ers Need to Make a Push for Charles Tillman in Free Agency
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

While they’re not big shoppers, one thing general manager Trent Baalke and the San Francisco 49ers can’t say no to in free agency is a perfect mesh between a need and a bargain, and that’s what All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman looks to be.

As this club remodels its secondary, they could benefit from a playmaking veteran, and he brings it.

He’s got the fire, the mindset, the experience and the physical ability they’re looking for. Tillman is the perfect stopgap on all fronts—a valued acquisition that can contribute and mentor the up-and-comers.

Analysts and fans projecting a fit for his next home need to look no further than this rundown. Considering all the elements involved—from the scheme, to needs, negotiating leverage and more—it is plain to see that San Francisco and Charles Tillman may have a mutual desire to come together.

 

The 49ers' Need for a Veteran Presence

Wade Payne/Associated Press

The 49ers will have Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Darryl Morris and very possibly a rookie taken between the first and third rounds of the 2014 draft.

It’s not hard to see it’s a young group: Brock and Culliver are 25 years old and Morris is 23 years old (yes, a 1990s baby). That is a lot of youth for a corner group in a pass-happy league, especially when the eldest safety backing them up will only be entering his second year as a pro.

There’s no real leader or proven talent to captain them.

Then there’s the kink of their most polished cornerback, Culliver, coming back from an ACL tear. That makes it a very rocky group because the one guy who could assert himself may not be the same player. The Niners might’ve been counting on him to be the No. 1 guy at some point when they drafted him in 2011, but now there’s risk.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

This is now a cornerback unit that needs some experience and proven talent to speak of.

Of the three CBs they promise to have, two were undrafted and the injured Culliver was a third-rounder. So it’s not as if the 49ers have invested a ton at the position either. And this does say something about the players’ perceived ceiling by scouts, coaches and general managers as they entered the NFL.

As they make strides toward the finished product, will they be serviceable and how good will they eventually be?

That alone calls for veteran help—someone to provide stability and allow these younger players to settle into more prominent roles.

Despite them being gifted up-and-comers, experience does come into play, particularly down the stretch in the playoff scenarios the 49ers so often find themselves in. The staff will look at this group and instantly recognize they’re not that seasoned as a whole, combining for 13 total starts between the three of them.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Charles Tillman is the perfect vet to plug into the 49ers secondary in 2014.

And counting on a rookie or two to safeguard them from failure is a roll of the dice.

Truth be told, most rookie corners, even the ones drafted really high, still rarely perform up to par in their first and sometimes second year. It is a very difficult position to master. Cornerback and quarterback are probably two of the most difficult positions to transition to, going from college to the pros.

The 49ers need a seasoned front man at the position. 

 

Hitting, Coverage and Turnovers

A pure playmaker at the cornerback position—that’s what Peanut Tillman is. Not just sound in his assignments, but a creator of opportunities.

This is the type of player the Chicago Bears were able to build the defense around because he is a leader and a producer. He relentlessly attacks the football as if nobody else will. This has led to 40 forced fumbles since 2003, including 13 over his last 24 starts.

Tillman also has 36 career interceptions. 

That is unbelievable overall production, especially over such a stretch. In fact, since 1991, only Tillman and former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins have recorded 30-plus interceptions and 30-plus forced fumbles, per sideline reporter Zach Zaidman of CBS Chicago (h/t STATS).

It’s been consistent, too.

He is one of three players with an interception and forced fumble in each of his last three seasons (Antrel Rolle and Charles Woodson), via ESPN’s Numbers Never Lie. Tillman also has nine career defensive touchdowns. He’s constantly around the ball, going as far as to weaponize the cornerback position, making the defense a scoring threat. 

But most important is that he can flat-out cover.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Charles Tillman has proven he can handle the best receivers in the NFL.

He is a long-bodied corner that is just a nuisance for receivers. Tillman is so aggressive that he makes his opponents exert more energy with the basics, like cutting and attacking the football. And generally speaking, he is so good at taking away receivers because he’s threatening and gets his hand at the catch point.

In Tillman’s last full season in 2012, opposing QBs had a 77.7 rating when throwing at him, per PFF.

He also allowed the lowest average yards per catch of all corners who have been targeted 40 or more times. It equated to him allowing just 0.75 yards per snap in coverage, and he was going up against two of the league’s most dangerous offensive players in Calvin Johnson and Aaron Rodgers four times a year, via Pro Football Focus.

And even the year before, Tillman was the No. 4-rated cornerback, according to Sean Jensen, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times (h/t PFF). Charles Tillman is still playing exceptional football well into his 30s and his natural ball skills could really flourish in a disciplined, pressure-generating defense in San Francisco.

 

The Fit 

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus conducted a brilliant investigative write-up on Peanut Tillman, coming to the conclusion that he is, in fact, one of the best man-cover corners in the game—when he’s not in zone.

Monson clarified how Tillman was trapped in Chicago’s Tampa 2 scheme, pointing out how he was getting burned in Cover 3 looks and plays that called for him to be in the box or in zone. Furthermore, it was proven that his numbers in straight man coverage were among the best in the NFL. 

Charles Tillman's Numbers in Man vs. Zone
Targets Completions Yards TDs INTs 1st Downs Completion Percentage YPC QB Rating
Cover 2/Man 59 34 254 2 1 14 57.6 7.5 64.2
Cover 3/4 38 28 321 1 2 18 73.7 11.5 77.4
Total 97 62 581 3 3 32 63.9 9.4 77.7

Sam Monson of PFF

Tillman (6’2”, 198 lbs) is far more efficient when he’s able to unleash on receivers; playing physical and mirroring them, rather than playing within the confines of the scheme.

His disruptive nature, footwork, timing and instincts are perfect for this street ball that teams are playing; a precedent reestablished by the Seattle Seahawks secondary. It was unfortunate to see him misused. Looking at him, Tillman is best on a team that uses a good deal of man-to-man coverage.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

That being the case, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has the model system for his strengths. And Fangio, who is one of the best defensive minds in the game today, will know how to use him.

Tillman will be the bully on the boundary, knocking receivers around while the pass rush gets home. He is also versatile enough to go flip sides and shadow the opposing team’s premier receiver. He played the first seven years of his career on the left side, which is where Carlos Rogers spent most of his time.

But in his last four years, Tillman played at right cornerback, so he’s fresh if the 49ers ask him to plug in where Tarell Brown was.

Adding Tillman as a perimeter corner opposite Chris Culliver also allows the 49ers to use fast-breakers in Tramaine Brock and Darryl Morris inside. They can also draft one of the highly regarded nickelbacks in the draft, like Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller or Florida’s Jaylen Watkins, and suddenly it’s a loaded position group.

 

The Cost

Evan Agostini/Associated Press

A lot has been said about the prospective cost of Charles Tillman, seeing as how he is one of the biggest defensive names on the market. And by all means, he is a shutdown corner for the moment.

But Tillman is an odd case because his play doesn’t match his age. And the truth is, you just don’t see too many 33-year-old corners landing long-term deals with guaranteed money. Teams aren’t willing to commit substantial cap to a player Chicago may have squeezed all the juice out of.

Not in a day and age where Denver Broncos 35-year-old legend Champ Bailey is being told to go home.

Also consider that Tillman is coming off a long-term deal. Cornerbacks rarely, if ever, get two opportunities to cash in over a career. The shelf life on the position is shorter than most. So it won’t be stunning when younger cornerbacks like Tarell Brown and Alterraun Verner are getting more lucrative offers.

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

And, hopefully, the levelheaded Tillman is content with the fact that he is not a young man anymore. And that he just got paid.

The veteran is earning the last chunk of a six-year, $37 million deal, per Spotrac. His average salary was inside the top 15 for corners, even after new deals for Darrelle Revis and Brandon Carr were done much later, raising the bar. Tillman has certainly been paid handsomely.

And seeing as how the deal was back-loaded, he’s earned $16 million over the last two years, so he’s got that to be chipper about.

There’s also the recent pileup of injuries he’s been facing. Tillman is coming off a right knee injury, which bothered him in the eight games he played last year. He also had a torn right triceps, which required surgery and still needs time to heal, via Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

So the situation is: He’s been paid, he’s got a few years left at best and his age/injury history prevents him from a big deal.

With the particular obstacles he faces in free agency, the way Tillman can optimize this last stretch of his career is by signing on with a contender. It’s got to be about winning. Remember, this was a player who went to and lost a Super Bowl, falling to quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

And that’s about all he’s got left to prove in his illustrious career.

Presumably, Tillman also wouldn’t mind joining a 49ers team that continually wallops 2011 MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, going 4-0 in their last four regular- and post-season meetings. This is another hump that has kept rings off Tillman’s finger, even when the Bears had a top-three defense and serviceable offense.

Even if he takes less money by joining the 49ers, Charles Tillman is still trading up because he’s competing for a Super Bowl.

That’s invaluable to a player in his seat.

 

Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Contact information provided by Spotrac

 

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