As I am Finding My Way through this process, I have come to the conclusion that cornerback is a massive need (Thanks Cpt. Obvious!). So installment six of The Layman’s Guide to Bears Free Agency with focus on, you guessed it, cornerbacks! If you missed the first five pieces about the backup quarterback, wide receiver, “joker” tight end, backup running back, or offensive/defensive line positions, you can find them here, here, here, here, and here respectively.
With two starting cornerbacks needed for the 2018 season, Ryan Pace can ill-afford to sign a Fly By Night player as he did last year with Prince Amukamara. My hope is that he has learned the Lessons from last year’s free agency period and adds some quality players to this roster. That said, given the Circumstances that have presented themselves, I believe that the Bears should be improved at the position heading into next season.
When you are staring at almost $100M to spend in free agency—give or take $5M to $15M based on cuts—then you have to spend big at premium positions. The cornerback is generally a player that is in the Limelight, much like wide receivers are. Given the amount of talent available—including a Bears free agent—if Pace misses out on the talent this year, it might be time to check the Vital Signs on his career here.
Unlike many positions on a football field, the two starting cornerbacks don’t need to have as much Chemistry as others. In that respect, they can look at going after someone that might have a bit of a poor reputation in the locker room. Perhaps they go after a pure ballhawk or someone that is ultra-physical to pair with Fuller or another name. Either way, there are plenty of options out there.
Without further adieu, why don’t we step into the film vault and take a look at some of the premier names out there, shall we?
Note: In the previous installments I shied away from players that were not currently available. Now that free agency is upon us, we have a much clearer view of which players are available via trade or will be cap casualties. I have included one such player in this article.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not a foregone conclusion that Fuller is going to be a Bear next year. I don’t see a scenario in which they use the franchise tag either. Based on a few rumblings, it doesn’t sound like there is a huge market for him, which is good news for a long-term contract. So while the tag is unlikely, I do think he ultimately re-signs with the Bears. Now that Fuller has fought The Enemy Within, he is playing at a high level, and in case you forgot what that looked like, here you go!
This first play shows Fuller in man coverage. He is playing in an “off” technique, which is something that he does a great deal of and plays to his strengths as many thought he would be best in a zone scheme. He does a great job of keeping his eyes on Andy Dalton and ultimately stepping in front of A.J. Green for the pass breakup.
Here is another example of Fuller in an off-man look. He does a great job again of watching the quarterbacks eyes and undercutting the ball. It takes a lot of confidence to make a break on a ball like this.
Despite a few games in the middle of the season, where I would almost bet he was hurt, Fuller played very physical last season. It reminded me of what I saw on his Virginia Tech film. There was a definite swagger last year that was nice to see.
It isn’t 100% happening, but I do think that there is serious mutual interest between the Bears and Fuller. Despite the NFL’s attempts to deny it, most of the free agents lay the groundwork for contracts at the combine. With that wrapped up, I believe that Fuller’s camp has a good idea of what his market will be and we should hear something soon. If the Bears don’t use either the franchise or transition tag, that is probably good news for those of us who want to see him back.
Before the combine news started trickling out, I thought going after both Fuller—when it looked like he would be franchise tagged—and Trumaine Johnson was an extreme long shot. Paying your starting cornerbacks roughly $30M for next season might be a tad rich. But if Fuller comes in at $10M or less, that changes the equation a little bit. Make no mistake, Johnson is the crown jewel of the free agent cornerbacks and his market will be intense.
When watching film of Johnson, he actually plays a lot like Fuller. Typically more of an off-man coverage guy who reads quarterbacks well and can make plays on the ball. Watch him read Alshon Jeffery here and undercut his route to knock the ball away. Good awareness of where the first down marker is too.
Once again he is in off-man coverage against Jeffery. He anticipates the break right around the first down marker and prevents the catch. The synergy on both sides of the field with Fuller and Johnson would be really nice to see.
Occasionally even top flight cornerbacks line up in the slot. From a trail position, Johnson runs the same route as the receiver and undercuts it. You also see here his ability to press when needed. My guess is that if Fuller re-signs, the opposite corner will need to be able to play more press-man technique.
Johnson would add elite talent to the cornerback position, but if the Bears ultimately re-sign Fuller, does it make sense to spend that much money on the position? With a potentially weak pass rush due to a lack of available talent, that might be what they have to do. I know that watching a pairing of Fuller and Johnson every week would make me a happy man!
The next best cornerback in free agency, at least in my opinion, is Breeland. I would prefer Breeland in a number two role as opposed to the top guy at the position, so getting Fuller back at the right price is paramount. When watching his film, you see another player that is similar to Fuller, although I think that Fuller still has a bit more upside to him still.
This is the first play we have seen in zone coverage. Here is something that we have rarely seen from a Bears cornerback but often see against the Bears. Breeland recognizes where the throw is going, breaks on the ball, and hits the receiver to dislodge the ball.
This is a bit of a poor throw by Phillip Rivers here but how many times have we seen this ball hit the ground? Instead it’s seven points the other way. Breeland was in perfect position and read the poor throw immediately for the interception.
Did I mention that I am a sucker for a cornerback that isn’t afraid to hit people? This is the second time we have seen Breeland come up and stick someone. I think that is something that this defense relies on in both the running game and in not giving up the big play.
Breeland is firmly in the next tier of players but he is still young and likely has a little bit of upside to him. That doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t be overpaying him though, because you likely will. If the Bears cannot afford to go with their top targets this off-season, signing Breeland would be a nice consolation prize for them.
Here is the player I mentioned earlier. Talib appears to be on the trading block and if there are no takers, it appears that he has taken his last snap for the Broncos. If they are looking to trade him, a late round pick could work as his remaining contract is very reasonable. If he is cut, there will be competition for him as he still has elite traits at the position. If the Bears think they can draft an eventual replacement, this would be a nice, short-term move for them.
Watch how Talib uses the sideline as a defender here. Too many cornerbacks would turn their back to the quarterback here. He doesn’t and should have had himself an interception for his efforts.
Despite being 32 years old, Talib still has elite change-of-direction skills which are on full display here. He reads the receiver until he sees the break, matches it and gets his head around for another almost interception.
Again you see just how smart the good ones really are. He plants himself about 1 yard deep in the end zone, so he can undercut any route that is designed to be thrown into the end zone. This also puts him in position to watch the quarterback all the way.
Talib is the only player on this list that may not be a possibility and I hate to put players like that on here, but it seems like a foregone conclusion. He is still playing at a very high level and would be a good player for the younger guys on the team to learn from. Does he come with some baggage? Sure, but he also brings a swagger to him which this defense can use. He is also very physical, which again, is something that would be welcome here.
There are many avenues that the Bears can go down to solve this position. I personally think it would be a mistake to allow Fuller to depart. You just got the sense last season that you were watching a player that was about to take the step into the upper echelon of cornerbacks. He is a home grown talent on top of that. These players need to start being rewarded.
Even if Fuller re-signs, they still need a cornerback on the opposite side and preferably one who is better than Amukamara. It is time for Pace to Roll The Bones, unveil his Grand Designs, and spend the The Big Money on the cornerback position this year.