The two most valuable skills an NFL player brings to the table are availability and consistency. Availability in being able to stay on the field and play when called upon, and consistency in maintaining a solid level of play. You can be the most talented player in football, but if you’re not healthy, and or aren’t apt to consistently playing up to your talent, it means little.
When looking at the Bears under Matt Nagy in his first year as head coach, there are a lot of guys on the current roster that are due to see brighter days along those lines. That goes mostly for the offense, where everyone from Mitchell Trubisky to Dion Sims should perform more admirably in a less conflated offensive scheme. Regression from the NFL’s 28th ranked offense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA isn’t foreseeable. It’s difficult to get worse considering the personnel and coaching changes the Bears have made on that side of the ball.
Where the Bears are more likely to get worse in 2018 is defensively, as much less investments have been made. It can be argued that perhaps Chicago didn’t need to make any upgrades, but from the edge pass rush to defensive end: they didn’t change their unit much from 2017. Eight starters are expected to return.
Believing the Bears defense will improve on the merit of having a competent offense complement them is a flawed ideal because they play under individual parameters. Football isn’t played in a vacuum of that manner. An offense and defense can only influence each other so much. Talent always wins out first.
Now while Chicago didn’t improve their pass rush much, that’s not the unit to expect a reasonable decline from. Right now the Bears’ pass rush is only a little above average and that should be balanced out over the course of the fall.
Instead, it’s Chicago’s defense’s starting cornerback duo in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, of which have never previously played at the high level they did in 2017. Of which were part of a surprising secondary last season. “Surprising” because many expected that secondary to be a liability going in.
The standards these two reached last season are not iron clad without fault. Without an improved pass rush to make their jobs easier, asking them to replicate the same thing moving forward is mistaken.
Fun fact: Fuller and Amukamara combined are the highest paid cornerback duo ($14 million for Fuller, $9 million for Amukamara) in 2018. The next best is the Titans’ Malcolm Butler ($12.25 million) and Logan Ryan ($10 million). This speaks more to an inflated cornerback free agent market than anything, but no one is considering either of these two the top duos in football.
Let’s examine the circumstances of regressions from Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara. Note: a regression doesn’t mean their performance falls off a cliff. That’s too drastic of a conclusion. It’s more of any noticeable dip in play.
Kyle Fuller, CB
2017 statistics: 69 tackles, 22 passes defensed, two interceptions
Rightfully, Fuller is held in a high esteem around the NFL. His newest contract with the Bears has him compensated as the fifth-highest paid cornerback in the league. Only Washington’s Josh Norman, the Jets’ Trumaine Johnson, the Vikings’ Xavier Rhodes, and Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson make more money per year. The rival Packers wanted his services for a reason before the Bears matched a contract offer for his services.
But Fuller being paid that much doesn’t mean he’s in the same class as those cornerbacks. It’s more to do with free agent cornerbacks routinely receiving pay above their grade, and about betting on Fuller’s upside moving forward. Logically, how much upside does Fuller have?
If he’s retained the confidence that he put on display in 2017, then the Bears should be more than comfortable with Fuller as their No. 1 cornerback for the next few seasons. He doesn’t have to be Darrelle Revis or Deion Sanders in their primes for Chicago’s defense to be successful. Based on the way he carries himself, Fuller is prepared to do exactly that and be relied on as a Bears’ defensive cornerstone.
Why Fuller should be expected to “regress” in 2018, is more about opposing offense’s beginning to respect him more. Every season that Fuller has played as a professional, he’s steadily improved. Until this point, it hasn’t been enough to where quarterbacks and offensive coordinators feared attacking him. That led to Fuller being targeted 119 times last season, according to Pro Football Focus. That was 29 more than the next cornerback: a dramatic outlier of a gap that shouldn’t be expected to continue. Despite that, Fuller allowed only two touchdowns all season, and a paltry catch rate of 51.3 percent: which led the NFL.
It takes a long time for many coaches to recognize a trend and walk away from their bravado. Testing Fuller that much obviously didn’t work, but gave him enough opportunity to enjoy a complete breakout season and the best year of his career by far. Fuller played every single snap in 2017 and only the Lions’ Darius Slay had more pass breakups.
To expect Fuller to be singled out in a similar fashion moving forward would be mistaken, considering everywhere else the Bears’ defense can be attacked. Ultimately, the elite offenses won’t shy away from attacking him when they have to. But, it’ll be in a more measured fashion. Fuller is very likely not going to get the same chances to balloon his statistics next year.
If anything, that should be considered a win for the Bears’ defense. It means Fuller’s doing his job on one boundary. And he can still have a standout year while showing a dip in statistical figures. There’s more to numbers than meet the eye.
Prince Amukamara, CB
2017 statistics: 45 tackles, seven passes defensed
Of any new contract that should be worrisome on the current Bears’ roster, it’s Amukamara’s. His 2017 was as sizable of an anomaly in comparison to any other active Bear previously.
Amukamara has only started 16 games in his seven-year career once: back in 2013 with the Giants. He’s only started at least 12 games three times. Overall, he’s only started in 69 of a possible 112 games. From broken feet to repeated hamstring pulls (one of which actually sidelined him to begin 2017): the former 2011 first round pick should be properly seen as injury prone. This isn’t a case of bad luck when it’s happened every season for seven years. It’s not misfortune when he’s only played a full season once.
To expect Amukamara to be healthy and rely on him as the Bears’ No. 2 cornerback, is to place yourself in a position of inevitable failure. You’re asking to have your heart broken. This isn’t to say that Amukamara will absolutely miss an abundance of time on his new contract that essentially guarantees him two seasons in Chicago. It’s more that he’s unlikely to play at the same status he did in 2017 where he was uncharacteristically healthy for his low standards.
And that 2017 season for Amukamara? In actuality, it wasn’t as great for the cornerback as the box scores might say.
Johnathan Wood of Da Bears Blog took a fascinating look at success offense’s had throwing against the Bears’ defense in 2017 back in February.
Green, based on Wood’s chart, was top 10 level in play. That was Fuller’s side of the field. Red was bottom top level in play. That was Amukamara’s side of the field. For all the targets that Fuller faced as the most attacked cornerback in football, Amukamara couldn’t keep up with a significantly smaller workload. In fact, he lagged significantly behind. Seeing as how we should expect to see that workload to rise as soon as next season: that doesn’t bode well for the veteran based on what his 2017 season showed.
The Bears agreed with this sentiment, as they weren’t chomping at the bit to bring back Amukamara next to Fuller. They had reported visits with now Chiefs’ cornerback David Amerson as early as February. Butler was also a target before eventually signing with Tennessee. They didn’t work to retain Amukamara quickly at the open of this year’s free agency either. Re-signing him was more about maintaining what you had last year, comfort, and settling once other reasonably priced options were off the table. More appropriately: attempting to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
Could Amukamara see more interceptions in 2018? Sure. But he hasn’t caught one since 2015, and hasn’t caught more than one since 2014: the only time he’s ever had multiple interceptions. He’s not known for his hands or being a ballhawk.
Could Amukamara enter double digits in passes defensed? Sure. But he hasn’t done that since also 2015, and has only done it three times in his career.
The more reasonable outlook for Amukamara is to expect to be tested more often in 2018, and be exposed at a higher rate than he was in 2017. Allowing one touchdown in 14 games like he did last year won’t continue. If Amukamara does experience a rise in any relevant statistics, it’ll be because he’s getting more chances, not because he’s playing better. Unlike Fuller, who both had better statistics and quality underlying numbers in 2017.
Technique-wise, Amukamara is one of the more fluid cornerbacks in football, capable of mirroring receivers step for step with what seems like minimal effort. He’s going to need it as quarterbacks and coaches understand from the get-go that they can exploit him with ease.
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.