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Bears window shopping 2017: A.J. Bouye and the corner market

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The Texans’ stud, A.J. Bouye, leads the available cornerbacks in the next of this Bears free agent series.

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NFL: AFC Wild Card-Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans
Houston Texans cornerback, A.J. Bouye
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bears have deep issues in their secondary. It’s difficult to deny. A defense with few playmakers or reliable cover guys on the back end in the modern NFL is akin to a car without gas. A film without a coherent plot. A pillow without feathers. All aside, there’s no finishing touch to a defense without quality players in its secondary.

Thankfully, the Bears can fix their issues of a lack of elite or even, capable talent here with both the draft and free agency. As safety is in my mind, Chicago’s greatest need, I’ve already taken a look at the top safeties on the market in the first part of this series.

Now Ryan Pace, with the first segment of his shopping list knocked out, gets to turn his eyes towards the cornerbacks and away from the abyss. What a relief it is.

The problem

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

If you traced back to when Chicago’s issues in the secondary began in the 2016 season, it would’ve been Kyle Fuller’s knee scope that eventually turned into him missing the entire year. He would later be activated off of injured reserve to return, but a weird cat-and-mouse game with the Bears ensued, all but ensuring a lost season for the now fourth year veteran.

Who knows whether Fuller returns? And if he does come back to Chicago, who can be sure if he’ll stay at cornerback?

Nevertheless, Fuller’s injury set the depth chart ablaze, as Chicago wasn’t equipped to go into the season without their number one corner. It again turned the 30-year-old journeyman, Tracy Porter - a quality competitor and excellent teammate, but merely adequate or below average player - into the Bears’ primary cover corner.

Porter had the third most snaps, with 230, covering opposing number one wide receivers according to Pro Football Focus.

When Porter is the guy you use as your shadow in 2016, only expect a cataclysm of issues to befall your passing defense. He’s serviceable, but not much more, and speaks to the injuries and growing pains the Bears had to endure.

It seems whenever Chicago had a bright spot among their cornerbacks this past season, they would be sidelined and or make a crucial mistake. For example, second-year undrafted free agent, Bryce Callahan, looked like a keeper at times in building off his rookie season. But Callahan appeared in only 11 games in 2016 after playing in just nine in 2015. While this is a player that flashes with physicality and instincts regularly, whatever steps he’s supposed to take are mitigated when he can’t consistently stay healthy.

The same goes for 2016 fourth rounder, Deiondre’ Hall, who after a sparkling camp and solid start to his rookie campaign with an interception against the Lions in Week 4, suffered a high-ankle sprain and was rarely heard from again. Cre’Von LeBlanc, objectively, was the one young corner as another undrafted free agent that showed promised over the course of the season.

That three-week stretch late, offered a glimpse of a player that was getting “it”. I’m just not sure how high his ceiling is.

Injuries derailed the progress of the group, but also offered a conclusion given the evidence: The Bears don’t have a shutdown cornerback on the roster and need to acquire one, quickly. Luckily, the free agent class is filled with guys that would be significant upgrades.

Here are the top corners, in my mind, for Pace to focus on:

  1. A.J. Bouye, Houston Texans, Unrestricted

Pace’s free agent history leaves a pattern. The types of players he’s focused on have been quality contributors (Pernell McPhee, Akiem Hicks, etc.) while not necessarily marquee focal points. Guys who have worked their way up as starters and or underrated stars, rather than the perennial Pro Bowlers or All-Pros from the get-go.

With that philosophy in mind, the 25-year-old Bouye should be the top target for the Bears, as he fits the Pace mold perfectly.

After an up-and-down beginning to his career through the first three years, Bouye blossomed as one of the very best at his position in 2016. A reserve role in 2015 seemed to do him wonders after starting in six games in 2014.

You could’ve nicknamed him “Bouye Island” for his play, and I wouldn’t blink.

63 tackles and only one interception this past year don’t pop out at first glance. But you take pause when you note 16 pass break-ups in 11 starts, rising as one of the league’s finest. Bouye is a cornerback with elite speed, technique, athleticism, and length. Even while he’s only 6’0”, that arm-length of a listed 31 and 5/8th inch arms is what allows him to take chances and use his skills appropriately. He rarely makes a mistake in coverage and is beyond deliberate in his shadowing of wide receivers. You can’t fool him. There are no wasted movements.

His ascension to the primary cover guy in Houston over Johnathan Joseph was a marvel to watch unfold. That’s especially when understanding Joseph’s preceding high-esteem reputation - even if his play has declined recently. But not even Joseph could deny Bouye’s growth. Essentially, Bouye took the NFL by storm and was the breakout performer on the number one Texans defense.

In fact, Bouye was so great, he finished as Pro Football Focus’s second highest graded corner overall, at 91.4. Furthermore, when targeted, he only allowed 54.5 percent of passes to be completed and surrendered a lowly 73.7 passer rating.

And while he didn’t take ball away (just three interceptions total, including the postseason), Bouye made up for it by blanketing almost every receiver he matched up against. It doesn’t mean he’s not capable of being a ballhawk. He just doesn’t receive as much opportunity given his stellar coverage, a common conundrum for shutdown corners.

But be in the right place at the right time, and maybe fortune, as well as the ball, will follow.

For what it’s worth, Bouye did tell reporters that he wants to return to Houston in the post-game of the Texans’ loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round.

Per the Houston Chronicle: “I would like to be back,” Bouye said. “I’d like to be back, but we’ll see what happens.”

Given the pending market for the free agent-to-be, Bouye won’t last long should Houston not muster up the space (or not use the costly franchise tag of around $14 million) to sign him. The Texans are projected to have only around $25 million in cap space. Do they really want to hamstring themselves with one cornerback?

Plenty of teams in addition to the Bears, such as the Eagles, Raiders, Seahawks, and Jets will have him in their sights to pounce.

This is the top cornerback available whose going to get paid handsomely (likely $10 to $12 million) wherever he chooses to go. Should Chicago win that eventual bidding war, NFC quarterbacks everywhere beware of football’s new premier defensive back.

2. Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams, Unrestricted

NFL: St. Louis Rams at Arizona Cardinals
Los Angeles Rams cornerback, Trumaine Johnson
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson is an interesting case for Chicago. Because while he likely costs less than Bouye, he’s still going to command a hefty salary. The 27-year-old played on a franchise tag in Los Angeles this past season and made $13.9 million. I don’t expect him to budge too much off of that on a long-term deal.

But, it seems that according to reports the Rams will let Johnson walk, instead of giving him the payday he’s been seeking. So tentatively a host of secondary-needy teams like the Bears have someone to keep an eye on.

Taking a look at his history, Johnson was second only to Josh Norman in 2015 in allowing the league’s second lowest quarterback rating at 55.0.

That play didn’t taper off in 2016, there were just other risers such as Bouye that flourished.

Johnson this past season, as he has throughout his career, yet again stuck to receivers like glue. His size and length at 6’2” 208 pounds, allow him to play a very physical brand of football. He had 57 tackles to go with 11 pass break-ups - a steady number on both counts for the veteran throughout his career.

This is an adept tackler and imposing player for his position that is normally more diminutive. Essentially, Johnson puts said size to good use. 263 tackles combined with 53 passes defended across four seasons speaks volumes.

But an underrated part of his game features how fluidly he’s able to move for a large cornerback. Johnson has excellent hips and patience. This isn’t a player limited by speed or athleticism. You can trust him in any situation as a defensive coordinator. This is a guy you send out as a coach and tell him “go erase that receiver” and he does it.

What should be interesting to watch with Johnson too, is what kind of cornerback Pace prefers to have on his defense. Yes, what personnel evaluator wouldn’t want a freakishly athletic cornerback, sure, but the mold of guys that Pace has selected for his unit tells the story.

Fuller, LeBlanc, and Callahan, are all average or less so, size-wise. The only guy that’s comparable to Johnson is Hall, but with such a small sample size of Hall, we have no standard to determine whether Johnson fits the Pace and Vic Fangio template (at least in Chicago).

Otherwise, Johnson’s not the “typical” free agent Pace has pursued. This is a top-flight player with pedigree. But Chicago can’t ignore the attraction of his addition.

3. Logan Ryan, New England Patriots, Unrestricted

NFL: AFC Divisional-Houston Texans at New England Patriots
New England Patriots cornerback, Logan Ryan
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not every day you can poach away a starter from a Super Bowl champion so easily, but the Bears will have that opportunity here. Ryan isn’t one of the biggest names available per say, but he’s an underrated prospect for an organization that could be looking to sign underrated players after loading up on top commodities.

The style of Ryan’s play is comparable to Bouye’s. He’s a relentless, dedicated worker, and is disciplined and well-coached. To boot, he uses the best of his 5’11” 195 pound frame.

He’s always around the ball, too.

Ryan is the exact kind of player (player, not corner) Pace would prefer. A program guy who has ascended slowly over his four-year career and is just now starting to peak at 25-years-old. A pairing of two, rising 25-year-old corners in Bouye and Ryan is the risk-aversion Pace needs to strive for in handing out deals in free agency.

And for Ryan, he picked an ideal time to hit the open market too as he played on just an approximate $1.6 million base salary in 2016. As one of the top cornerbacks available, and considering the money that will follow, New England is more likely to let him walk then re-sign him given their history with players they deem expendable.

Though, the Patriots will be set to have the fourth most cap space in the league (crazy, I know) with $65 million, so they can theoretically offer Ryan whatever he pleases. And, unlike players they’ve let go, Ryan is only now hitting his prime. However, do they really want to pay a cornerback $8-10 million, likely the figure it will take to bring him back?

That’s an interesting quandary for the league’s golden standard organization. A question that could serve the Bears well to swoop in and take advantage.

All options aside, the Bears have a multiple choice question in front of them with every answer correct at cornerback.

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.