Phil Emery has been a big Tim Jennings fan ever since the cornerback starred at the University of Georgia.
"I told him when I got here he's one of my favorite players that I've ever scouted," said the Bears general manager. "I was in Atlanta [working in personnel with the Falcons] at the time and spent a lot of time watching him and having the opportunity to go over to Athens to watch his games."
The 5-8, 185-pounder had a breakthrough year in 2012, leading the NFL with nine interceptions and being voted to his first Pro Bowl. This season, Jennings again topped the Bears with four interceptions—returning two for touchdowns—as well as 13 pass breakups.
"He's been a big part of our defense since he's been here, tremendous Pro Bowl season a year ago," Emery said. "He started the season out making plays. We had some injuries, we didn't have as good a rush, that forced everybody in the secondary to play in a different style and with the injury to Charles Tillman, that put a lot of [responsibility] on Tim to handle the No. 1 receiver, and I thought he did well. I thought he had an excellent season."
In back-to-back wins late in the season, Jennings helped hold Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant to two receptions for 12 yards and Browns wideout Josh Gordon to three catches for 67 yards. Even in consecutive season-ending losses to the Eagles and Packers, Jennings still performed well.
"We had a couple tough games there at the end with Philadelphia and Green Bay and I watched Tim," Emery said. "When they were trying to put receivers in the end zone on him, his ability to match and mirror an opponent, to shadow an opponent and keep the quarterback from throwing to the best receiver was very impressive to me."
Although he's coming off the two best seasons of his eight-year NFL career—he signed with the Bears in 2010 after spending four years with the Colts—Jennings is striving to continually improve.
"I'm trying to maintain, but also get better," Jennings said. "I want to stay healthy. That was one of my goals going into this year; play all 16 games. I was able to do that. But of course it's not over.
"I still feel like I've got a lot of football left in me, so that gives me an opportunity to go into this offseason and continue to grind, continue to get better, and stay healthy for these next four years. I'm excited about it. I feel like I'm able to do that and see where this team has to go."
The Bears had preliminary contract talks with Jennings' agent during the season, but the cornerback did not want to know any details because he was determined to concentrate solely on football.
"I've been through this process before," Jennings said. "It didn't work out well for me when it kind of lingers in your mind. My agent did a great job of keeping me out of the loop. I just wanted to focus on football, focus on the year, continue to stay healthy and help this team win as much as I can.
"I'm blessed for it to happen the way it did, and for me not having to see what was out there again [on the open market]. That was no question; if I had the opportunity to stay here and they wanted me, then it was a no-brainer."