Two years ago, Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller burst onto the NFL scene in the blink of an eye. In just the second week of the 2014 season, the sparkling corner Fuller widely broadcasted his talents to a national audience on ‘Sunday Night Football’.
Here’s one special memory. Remember those days? That was fun.
Anyway, on said magical night against the San Francisco 49ers, Fuller had two game-changing interceptions to help galvanize a 13-point comeback that facilitated a shocking 21-point fourth quarter for Chicago. The Bears would go on to stun the 49ers, a team that had played in three straight NFC championship games, 28-20. They’d shown glimpses of a potential bright season under former coach Marc Trestman. The fact that it was sparked by a rookie first-round draft pick like Fuller only made the victory and future seem even brighter.
Of course, we all know now that circumstances didn’t play out that way.
Chicago finished 2014 with a 5-11 record and broke several franchise records for defensive futility in the process. While there were many dismal points of tension that had plenty of players regress back then, Fuller himself was just never quite the same following that initial September. He struggled immensely in man coverage, was consistently picked on by opposing quarterbacks, and even in the short time he led the NFL in interceptions at three, guys still had a 115.7 passer rating when attacking him according to Pro Football Focus. To say early results inflated his expectations would be an understatement.
Let’s make one ideal clear: Everyone judges cornerbacks by two important skill sets.
There are the players that can stick to their man one-on-one no matter what. They have virtually impeccable technique, give receivers no space, and almost generally don’t make mistakes or bite on play fakes, etc. They strand you on an “island” like Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’ and don’t let you find your way home for years (60 minutes). Think Richard Sherman now or even Darrelle Revis in his heyday.
On the other side, you have the contracted turnover mercenaries, meaning the gentlemen who routinely make flash plays i.e. interceptions, forced fumbles, whatever. Greats like Charles Woodson and Charles Tillman primarily made a living at torturing opposing skill players and getting the ball back time and again for their offense’s. In some cases, signature plays like the “Peanut Punch” for Tillman or making a quality play on the ball in the air in general, can be seen as a lost art. Not everyone has the same instinctive gift.
If you lean extremely towards either of these two classifications as a defensive back, or are even a combination of both, you’re on well on your way to an extended productive career on any team’s back end.
For all objective purposes, Fuller is a defensive back of the latter ballhawk variety. He’s very capable of baiting passers into throwing his direction, has excellent hands, and can make an athletic play if need be. Yet, this only applies in aptly describing Fuller as a zone defender.
Last season, following Week 7, Fuller actually was one of the league’s best corners.
Since the Bears' Week 7 bye, Kyle Fuller has the 7th-highest coverage grade among CBs, and is allowing a 39.1 passer rating to opposing QBs.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 14, 2015
That’s someone who you avoid while game planning as an offensive coordinator altogether. He grew up and took advantage.
But, it doesn’t discount the fact that Fuller still has trouble working against guys in man-to-man and decisively, well, actually turning his head around to make plays on the ball when he’s blind as to what’s happening. That’s not a knock on Fuller necessarily either. As mentioned, the breed of corners that can stick someone on an island without seeing the quarterback is extremely rare. You almost have to possess eyes in the back of your head.
If Fuller hadn’t had surgery in August on his knee and then subsequently been placed on injured reserve approximately a month later, maybe we could’ve seen growth from him in this department.
Alas, now the Bears have a slew of young corners they are developing in his absence in rookie Deiondre’ Hall, and second-year guys, Bryce Callahan and Jacoby Glenn. It’s early, but Callahan and Hall in particular, look like foundational building blocks for years to come.
Whenever Fuller returns to action, whether it be with the Bears choosing to activate him off of injured reserve this December, or in organized team activities in the spring, there’s a possibility he doesn’t have a role at corner for this organization anymore.
That’s just the facts of the “next man up” philosophy in developing other talent with upside while they go through their own growing pains.
However, given the current construction of this defense, he could have an entrenched spot elsewhere.
Chicago is currently starting the same exact mold of player at both safety spots in Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey. The crux of the issue is that they don’t have someone offenses fear in making a mistake when moving vertically down the field. If you think long and hard about it, they actually haven’t had a consistent dangerous ballhawk safety since Mike Brown. Amos and Jones-Quartey are physical and prefer to play around the box. In the interest of full disclosure, Amos is decisively the better player and looks like a keeper compared to his counterpart.
Should Jones-Quartey not distinguish himself by the end of this season in a more electric fashion, the Bears do have the Fuller card at safety to lay out here.
What Fuller offers, is the ability to play center-field deep, and drive on routes and receivers when opportunities present themselves. He has the range and the athleticism to run from sideline to sideline, when provided the full HD picture as presented in his interception above. Every time he’s made a play on the ball in his career- six total interceptions to go with three forced fumbles-were when he was able to see the play in it’s entirety.
This wouldn’t be the most difficult transition. Defensive backs, especially zone players, make the change to safety a lot more often than you think. You have to consider it’s harder for older guys than young pups too, so Fuller has a leg up already. There are the rare cases of the Woodson’s (Charles and Rod) thriving anywhere you place them no matter the stage in their career, but it’s not often long-time veterans succeed when doing so. Those two are future Hall of Famers for a reason.
Save for a few exceptions, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Now would be the time for the still malleable third-year Fuller to learn and succeed.
It would be the hottest of takes and completely outlandish to suggest that moving Fuller next to Amos automatically makes him a Woodson or Ed Reed-type, but you can’t discount the possibilities. Moving forward, Chicago wouldn’t have to spend a pick on a high-end safety in the 2017 draft allowing them to instead use the pick on another roster hole. They wouldn’t have to worry about any drawn out competition between other safeties on the roster like Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson as well.
And the opening allows Fuller, another first-round pick from the previously failed Emery era, to not go completely by the wayside. 2017 is essentially a contract year for the 24-year-old given the fifth-year option on his deal. There’s no better way to make him stick with this budding roster then placing him in a much more beneficial spot for the team that, in essence, is a fortuitous career move for everyone.
A Fuller that balls out at free safety on a great defense next year is undoubtedly rewarded with a substantial extension, while the Bears lock in their dynamic safety duo for the foreseeable future. Win-win for both sides.
It’s not often you can be proud of a team like the Bears killing three to four defensive birds with one stone.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.