Cornerback Kyle Fuller had the best game of his Chicago Bears career last Sunday.
The four-year veteran finished the game with a tackle and a career-high six pass deflections. He didn’t allow a single catch, and he picked up his second interception of the season. In a season that has arguably been the best since he was drafted with the 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, his outing against the Cleveland Browns last week will stand out the most.
This makes it the perfect time to ask the question: what would the Bears do if Fuller were to leave in free agency?
Fuller has undoubtedly been the best cornerback on Chicago’s roster this season. Sure, he has had a few down games here and there, but he has held his own against Pro Bowlers like A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Josh Gordon. With a fairly thin group of corners behind him, the Bears should definitely look into bringing him back next season.
They can choose to franchise tag him, which would likely cost just over $15 million, according to CBS Sports. They can also wish to re-sign him to a long-term deal. Spotrac currently has Buffalo Bills cornerback E.J. Gaines’ market value as about $9.7 million. Considering the fact that Fuller has had a slightly better season than Gaines this year, we're looking at a potential annual salary of somewhere in the range of $10-13 million. Spotrac has the Bears having nearly $47 million in cap space. With veteran cuts, that number will surely increase. Needless to say, they’d have more than enough money to bring him back.
That is, if Fuller even wants to come back.
Back in December of 2016, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio publicly stated that it didn’t seem like Fuller, who had been recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery at the time, wanted to come back and play. A few months later - April 29, 2017, to be exact - general manager Ryan Pace opted to not pick up his fifth-year option on Fuller’s rookie deal. With these two overt signs of disappointment in Fuller, one would be in their right mind to think that he may not want to re-sign with the team this March.
Things could have changed over time, as the coaching staff has since shown approbation to Fuller as the season has progressed. Plus, Fangio will likely not return to Chicago next season, so having one of his biggest doubters gone may brighten things up a bit. However, with these past signs of uncertainty, the question isn’t whether or not the Bears should bring back Kyle Fuller, because it seems like they definitely want to do so. Rather, the question is whether or not Kyle Fuller wants to come back to the Bears.
If Fuller chooses not to return to Chicago, then the cornerback position will join the likes of edge rusher and wide receiver as needs that absolutely have to be filled. The next best cornerback on the Bears’ roster is Prince Amukamara, who himself will be entering free agency this offseason.
The veteran is in an interesting situation. He has had a decent season on his one-year “prove-it” deal - he has 40 tackles and seven pass deflections so far - but he hasn’t been a standout on the Bears’ defense. He signed a one-year, $7 million contract last offseason after a season with the Jacksonville Jaguars that was fairly identical to the one he has had this year. His annual salary will likely be somewhere between $5-7 million. If Fuller leaves, then odds are Amukamara will be brought back. Having Fuller come back would hurt Amukamara’s odds to return to the Bears, but it wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of his return.
Outside of Fuller and Amukamara, this is what Chicago has on the roster at cornerback:
- Bryce Callahan
- Marcus Cooper
- Cre’Von LeBlanc
- Sherrick McManis (free agent)
In that group, two of those four cornerbacks are specialists in the slot (Callahan and LeBlanc), which showcases how thin the Bears are at the outside cornerback position. When you take out Marcus Cooper as a salary cap casualty, then that group become even thinner. It becomes clear that the position must be improved, whether it be in free agency, the draft or both.
Free Agent Options
The biggest name projected to hit the open market this offseason is Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson. After being hit with the franchise tag for two consecutive seasons, he will likely enter free agency this year. Since players being tagged for a third consecutive season receive a salary that is an average of the top five players at the highest paid position (quarterback), it would be foolish for the Rams to tag Johnson again. For those counting at home, Johnson’s 2018 salary would reach $25 million.
Malcolm Butler, who has had a down year in 2017, is also entering free agency this year. His disappointing season may have some impact on how much he will be paid this offseason, but his price tag is still expected to be fairly steep. The aforementioned E.J. Gaines will also be on the open market. Other younger options include Morris Claiborne, Robert McClain, Justin Bethel, Rashaan Melvin and D.J. Hayden.
If the Bears want an older, stop-gap type of player, then they can find those in this year’s free agent group, as well. Veterans like Johnathan Joseph, Patrick Robinson, Brent Grimes and the ageless wonder, Terence Newman are all players over 30 years old that be hitting free agency this offseason. Although the Bears need to get younger, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them add an older veteran on a one-year deal.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of 2017 tape available on the Internet yet on some of the cornerbacks in the upcoming draft class. However, I have been able to watch enough corners to get a pulse of what’s to come this April.
The Bears won’t take a cornerback in Round 1, as it isn’t a big enough need and there won’t be good value that early. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the best defensive back in the class, and some consider him to be an option to play cornerback in the pros. He is as well-rounded of a secondary prospect as they come. He displays fluid hips, the ability to mirror defenders’ routes well and great ball skills in coverage. His work ethic on tape is apparent, as he often knows what the offense is going to run right from the get go. Fitzpatrick is also a physical, yet dependable tackler with great closing speed. Most draft analysts - myself included - see him as a safety in the NFL, but he would also succeed if placed at cornerback.
Ohio State’s Denzel Ward is a player whom many consider to be the best cornerback in the class, but he will likely be off the board before the Bears pick in Round 2. If the Bears were to pick a cornerback in Round 2, then they would likely have a wide variety of choices.
As was the case for me with fellow Colorado cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon last year, I really like Isaiah Oliver. At 6’1” and 195 pounds, he is well equipped to physically match up with a lot of NFL wide receivers. He’s a great cover corner who has the athleticism to match speedy receivers step for step, yet also has the physicality to disrupt bigger targets. Oliver is also a good tackler, and he even has some special teams value, to boot. Although he is currently the top cornerback on my board, many see him as a fringe first-round pick. If he falls to the second round, then the Bears would be wise to give him a look.
Although he is less likely to fall into Round 2, Iowa cornerback Joshua Jackson showed this year that he has all of the tools to be a stud at the next level. He has tremendous ball skills, as made evident by his seven interceptions in 2017. He tracks the ball down like a receiver, and is capable of disrupting the pass very well. His situational awareness is impressive, as well; he has a tendency to be in the right place at the right time. Like Oliver, Jackson has a good frame at 6’1” and 192 pounds. His tackling could use some work, but, as we’ve seen with current Bears safety Eddie Jackson, that can be fixed with coaching.
If the Bears choose not to pick a cornerback in the first two rounds, then they will still have a good selection for them on Day 3. One of my favorite corners in this class so far is Holton Hill out of Texas. He got suspended near the end of the season, which is likely to bring his stock down a bit. He also isn’t necessarily the fastest of cornerbacks in this group. However, he checks almost all of the other boxes that NFL teams like in their cornerbacks. Hill is 6’3” and 200 pounds, and has the long arms that scouts crave. He’s a physical corner whose height comes in handy when he’s swallowing up wide outs. He is a great tackler with very good closing speed, and he’s able to shed blocks well, too. His cover skills are also good; he has fluid hips and good ball skills. Hill is a Day 2 talent who will likely fall to Day 3 due to off-the-field issues. If the Bears are willing to overlook those, then they could find another starter in the secondary on Day 3.
The cornerback position is a need for the Bears that hasn’t received a whole lot of attention yet. A lot of the emphasis that they’ll place on fixing the need will likely rely on whether or not Kyle Fuller stays with the team. Even if he does, then the Bears will still need to add a corner or two in the offseason. Besides, they’ll have quite the selection of candidates to do so.