TAMPA — It was that noted football pundit, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who provided us with the key to NFL free agency: we begin by coveting what we see every day.
And what new Bucs head coach Lovie Smith witnessed almost every game of his nine-year stint on the Chicago sideline was the sight of cornerback Charles Tillman turning in momentum-changing plays.
Tillman is 33 these days and coming off surgery to repair a torn triceps, but remains an intriguing free-agent consideration for the Buccaneers.
Smith can’t go more than 45 minutes without mentioning the word “takeaway,’’ and nobody does turnover any better than Tillman, who was drafted by the Bears in 2003 as a second-round pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette.
Given his age and recent health issues, Tillman won’t command a lucrative deal when free agency begins Tuesday. But he could provide Tampa Bay with an experienced and aggressive corner who can upgrade a secondary that is seeking elite status.
The Bucs made significant strides on pass defense in 2013 with the additions of Darrelle Revis and rookie Johnthan Banks, but you need more than two reliable corners in today’s NFL — especially when you’re facing quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton twice a season in the NFC South.
Tillman has been a difference maker, and you don’t have to go back very far to see why.
Two years ago, in Smith’s final season in Chicago, Tillman forced 10 fumbles. That’s not a typo ... 10.
The Bears didn’t recover all of them, but the ball tends to be on the ground or in Tillman’s hands quite a bit.
In 11 seasons, Tillman has scored nine defensive touchdowns. He has intercepted 36 passes and forced 42 fumbles, the most by any defensive back in league history.
“Charles is an extremely unique guy,’’ Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “He’s a terrific football player and he played very well when he was healthy.’’
You don’t rack up the number of forced fumbles in Tillman’s resume by accident. He has a knack for punching the ball out of the hands of running backs and receivers, a skill he has worked hard to master.
The 2013 Bucs did a good job of forcing turnovers and Tillman’s presence in the secondary could prove invaluable in the fall. Banks had a typically erratic inaugural season and Tampa Bay is seeking an upgrade on third corner Leonard Johnson.
Tillman’s familiarity with Smith could give the Bucs an edge in the marketplace when free agency opens.
“Obviously, it makes the deal probably a little sweeter just because it’s a former head coach,’’ Tillman said. “You do know the system, you know the scheme. I think it helps from a standpoint that it’s a former coach, a guy that you like, a guy that you’ve been with for 10 years.’’
Since Tampa Bay pushed the restart button in 2009 under former GM Mark Dominik, the Bucs have rarely trusted anyone older than 30.
Five years down that rebuilding road, Tampa Bay needs to change its rigid philosophy. New GM Jason Licht and Smith recognize the value of a veteran ... if it’s the right veteran.
As the reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman would arrive with no character issues. Most importantly, he is a player Lovie Smith has grown to covet.