Every great NFL defense has a star cornerback. Every great defense also has depth at cornerback and multiple players it can rely on against increasingly creative offenses. A pass rush is the primary element a defense needs to succeed, but without playmakers on the back end, the plan of being a winning unit is scrapped altogether. Someone has to make the plays once the quarterback is pressured after all.
That’s how the Jaguars thrive with Jalen Ramsey and A.J Bouye. That’s how the Vikings operate with Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. The modern “Duval Till We Die” and “Skol” sayings of both teams is rooted in their athletic secondaries and specifically, cornerback play. Cornerback play that acted as a catalyst for Jacksonville and Minnesota to make it to this year’s Championship Sunday.
Where do the Bears stand with their cornerbacks? With the resurgence and breakout year of Kyle Fuller and consistency of free agent Prince Amukamara: they were arguably Chicago’s most pleasant surprise of the 2017 season.
Fuller, 26, had missed the entirety of the 2016 season due to unfortunate poor recovery from a knee injury. He had been criticized by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for a lack of toughness and wherewithal. His future with the Bears going into last year was up in the air after not having his fifth-year option picked up.
In response, Fuller went out and played in all 16 games and had a career season in tackles with 69, as well as passes defensed with 22 (which was second in the NFL). He was consistent. He was tough. And instead of letting his confidence tank, he instead chose to bury himself in his work and become a better player than ever. One the Bears could rely on to take away No. 1 receiving options. The most targeted cornerback in football made everyone pay for picking on him.
After a year where he became an afterthought, Fuller finally lived up to his first round draft status as the franchise player former general manager Phil Emery believed he could be. Current GM Ryan Pace agreed enough to transition tag Fuller. A transition tag that, in intended use, will facilitate a long-term deal with the Bears and the corner just hitting his prime. A move that will keep him in Chicago through his best football playing years. Pace called Fuller “a player we (the Bears) value” following the tag. The evidence of that priority sentiment is out in the open.
So, barring drastic developments, Fuller should be the Bears’ No. 1 cornerback for a good while. That leaves the spot and decision with Amukamara a fascinating and potentially slippery slope.
At the moment, there isn’t much smoke in terms of signs of a return for the veteran former first round pick. While Amukamara had an underrated performance opposite Fuller in his first year with the Bears’ defense: it was one of the rare occasions where he actually played at least 14 games in his career. Those injury and inconsistency issues have plagued Amukamara in seven seasons with three different teams, as he’s only played 16 games once. 2017 finally looked like a year where he put his pedigree together, but it’s difficult to gauge as to how out of place it was to reality.
With the kind of season Amukamara enjoyed with the Bears, he could be looking at a twilight deal the Bears won’t be willing to pay after breaking the bank for Fuller. Especially for a cornerback that quite literally cannot catch or make plays on the ball. Coverage corners are nice. The corners you pay are the ones who create turnovers in tandem. There’s not enough history to suggest a hefty investment would be wise on Chicago’s part to make in the 28-year-old. Amukamara’s a good soldier. He’s a solid veteran. But he’s not long for the Bears.
The Bears will have options to address this gaping hole in the draft. It’s a deep cornerback class filled with budding talent at the top and sleepers in the mid-rounds more than normal. Given the amount of upside guys available on the free agent market this year, it could behoove Chicago to instead sign a player who is betting on himself, and draft an eventual long term replacement just in case. A star like the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson would be a shock addition after writing a blank check for Fuller.
Let’s window shop and corner the corner market for the Bears.
Bashaud Breeland, Washington Redskins
A man with something perennially to prove, Breeland is the top guy to slot in next to Fuller. The former 2014 fourth-round pick has had an easier go of it assignment-wise next to the all-worldly Josh Norman for the past two seasons. That doesn’t make him any less of a player. If anything, that makes him a perfect and interchangeable player with Fuller in Chicago’s defense as he’ll be used to the same responsibilities.
What can be frustrating about Breeland in light of Norman playing opposite him, is that his play doesn’t always match expectations. As a cornerback still coming into his own, Breeland has a tendency to bite on double moves and take risks that lead to concerning inconsistency. Inconsistency that will lead the curiously cash-strapped Redskins to let him walk in free agency.
What’s eye-popping about Breeland is that he makes the most of his opportunities despite being boom or bust from time to time. This is a corner you can count on having passes defensed in the teens. A corner you can count on taking the ball away and jumping routes to tilt the field as eight total interceptions in four years can attest to. And he’s a corner that is a willing tackler in necessary run support. At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, the 26-year-old possesses both the stature and the mentality needed to succeed in this facet. Keep in mind that he’s played in at least 14 games in each of his four professional seasons.
There could be a slight bidding war for Breeland’s services with other salary cap healthy teams such as the 49ers and Browns, Breeland is going to cost a prettier penny than most. Justifying paying him after paying Fuller is easier because he’s a healthier and more proven player than the other No. 2 options. He’s a seamless plug-and-play guy for Chicago’s defense as he has a similar press play style to Fuller.
A contract precedent to consider with Breeland is four years for $40 million, with $20 million guaranteed. Money is going to be haphazardly thrown around in a way this free agency as it always is. If the Bears want to have an elite secondary for the future without making any other draft or cap capital investments, that financial statement doesn’t remotely apply with Breeland.
Aaron Colvin, Jacksonville Jaguars
The forgotten man of the Jaguars’ secondary because he takes a backseat to Ramsey and Bouye, Colvin has earned a greater share of the limelight.
Another former fourth-round pick in 2014, Colvin has been one of the steadier and more responsible players for Jacksonville. Before the Jaguars defense became elite, Colvin was honing his craft and evolving into some serviceable. Each season of his four-year career has seen the 26-year-old improve. This is a physical cornerback with a chip on his shoulder. A guy who yes, doesn’t make plays on the ball, but has the propensity for higher upside in glue-like coverage on a cheaper deal as he prepares for free agency.
The only occasions any progress was derailed for Colvin was a four-game PED suspension to start 2016. Otherwise he only missed most of his rookie year in 2014 due to a torn ACL suffered in the Senior Bowl. Since then, he’s been one of the NFL’s most overlooked corners. That’s because over the course of his career, Colvin ranks first in touchdowns allowed per coverage snap according to Pro Football Focus. That’s better than darling names such as Trumaine Johnson and Chris Harris Jr. in that same time frame. As the Jaguars’ current slot corner, that number isn’t skewed for a small sample size because Jacksonville’s defense plays in nickel packages for the most part. It’s elite output through and through.
Long story short: Colvin is a defensive asset that the Jaguars may make a mistake in not retaining if they can’t reach an agreement on a long-term deal.
As for where he fits with the Bears, moving Colvin from the inside to the outside is a hopeful projection. A leap of faith instead of wholesale confidence that he can handle the responsibility. At 6-foot, 193 pounds he certainly possesses the size to be capable of playing the boundary. Chicago merely has to make that same evaluation of players they prefer.
If the Bears were to offer Colvin a contract, think three years for $18 million with $10 million guaranteed. When it comes to guys such as him that have slowly risen, its assured that Fangio and company can find a spot for him to flourish.
Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
Cap casualties eventually bite most in the NFL. Especially selite talents of Talib’s mold that are on previously signed big money contracts. Reports thus far this off-season have named Talib as a likely cut by Denver. The 32-year-old Talib, who is playing out the last two years of a six-year, $57 million dollar deal, clearly understands the nature of the business. As a guy who has plenty left in the tank, that also means he’s not hanging up the cleats yet.
It should be understood that the Broncos aren’t cutting Talib because he’s a mediocre talent. Cutting him means they don’t have to pay out $12 million in 2018 and can save cap space for what looks like a rebuild with an impending young quarterback. Talib at this stage in his career is more than a serviceable player for a contender, or even a defense on the cusp of being dominant like the Bears. At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds with rake-like arms, he has the fantasy frame of a defensive back that Fangio drools over. He’s a press cornerback who affords no space to receivers, camps out in their head to throw them off their game, and who has an attitude that Chicago’s defense is lacking to get nastier.
Of every cornerback that’ll be available, Talib has the top ballhawk skills. When the ball is thrown in his direction despite tough coverage, he’s a master of baiting quarterbacks into making those poor decisions or recovering from mistakes. Regardless of his declining age, he could be thought of as a top-five cornerback for the time being and no one would blink an eye.
What’s underrated about Tailb is that mentioned attitude. He brings an edge to the football field that the Bears would do well to add in as many spots as they can across their roster. This is a violent game of battles, physicality, and mental toughness. Talib understands that and is the type of player that one loves when he’s playing for your team, and of whom you hate when he’s lined up across from you. Just ask Michael Crabtree of what it’s been like to have to deal with Talib the past few seasons. Now ask Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Marvin Jones if they’d be prepared for that full throttle challenge.
Talib already has links to teams such as the Patriots and Seahawks on the open market. The Bears would do well to jump into the fray and at least kick the tires. Signing Talib after the fact would mean drafting that eventual young cornerback to take over after a few years. It would mean having an shutdown stopgap in place, and a replacement to naturally fill in when the sand runs out in that stopgap’s NFL hourglass.
In terms of salary figures, think short term with Talib and Chicago. A contract should be in the range of two years for $16 million with $13 million guaranteed. Talib understands his market and knows he’s not going to get much more security. He also knows he can still play at a high level and isn’t going to accept any less while he’s able to make a living playing football, and continually getting into the heads of receivers. This creativity isn’t the worst idea the Bears have had in recent memory.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.