Entering the third year of Vic Fangio’s Bears defense last season, many concerns stemmed from a secondary filled with question marks. Adrian Amos was coming off a disappointing 2016. Eddie Jackson was an unproven rookie not yet starting. And the seemingly out of favor Kyle Fuller only entered the Bears’ Week 1 starting lineup because of an injury to the oft-missing Prince Amukamara.
A year later, while still growing and with a confident year behind them, Chicago’s secondary is one of the roster’s strong points. Jackson is one of the league’s solid young players poised for a leap in 2018. Amos is a Pro Football Focus darling that continually does his job well and complements Jackson’s rangy skill set. While Fuller and Amukamara have settled in nicely as one of the league’s most underrated cornerback duos. In terms of proficiency, not many have it better than the Bears’ back end at the moment.
Though, it can’t be denied that this group had a great run of fortune together in 2017. A similar performance with no ascension won’t bode well for Fuller and company moving forward. Especially for Fuller, the Bears’ new $14 million dollar man. He’s the guy that has to galvanize everybody else and live up to his billing as one of the highest paid cornerbacks in football. Overall, the Bears need more plays on the ball and a better run of reliability from each of their starters in the secondary.
This Bears’ secondary is the one position of Chicago’s roster that experienced no dramatic change in the off-season. That means the Bears themselves have faith in a step up, and won’t tolerate any drawbacks.
Not the time to get Full(er) of himself
Only four cornerbacks will make more money in 2018 than Fuller: Washington’s Josh Norman, the Jets’ Trumaine Johnson, the Vikings’ Xavier Rhodes, and the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson. Based off these players’ track records, it’s easy to say that Fuller rightfully isn’t a top five corner. He’s not a traditional shutdown type that erases receivers and simplifies his defense’s game plan on his own. He’s not really in the same stratosphere as ballhawks and individual lockdown players.
But Fuller doesn’t have to be the utmost elite, because that’s how cornerback contracts work now. Any solid to good NFL corner with a threat of leaving in free agency is always paid a little more handsomely than they should be on the open market, as their services are coveted in a pass-happy league. The best cornerbacks aren’t always rewarded right away either: look at the Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey (32nd highest-paid). It’s more about teams breaking the bank for a premium playmaking positional player if there’s one in their crosshairs.
The former restricted free agent in Fuller, while not the best, certainly fits that description. He’s the Bears’ No. 1 cornerback and someone they need around if they’re going to morph into an eventual contender. His expectations are more of maintaining his fantastic 2017 performance: the first time Fuller’s ever completed a stellar season wire to wire.
A career high 22 passes defended — second in the NFL. 16 starts, a far cry from Fuller’s “Where’s Waldo” 2016 act, and a measure of him effectively being there for his team. A career high 60 tackles, and two picks as well: not the most eye-popping of numbers, but a quality performance top to bottom nonetheless.
2017 was a career year for Fuller that earned him a four-year, $56 million dollar contract with $18 million guaranteed. That career year is now considered his standard. A standard that Fuller has to live up to, and one the Bears are well aware of given the limited amount of guaranteed money on his deal.
Top-tier to very good NFL corners have bad games from time to time. Most players do, because the competition is at such a high level. The amount of talented receivers around the league mean that eventually the offensive guys win some battles because they’re that good. But the household name defenders don’t have extended dry spells, and don’t wilt in big divisional games like Fuller against the Packers after the Bears’ bye week last year. Those performances are harder to overlook.
Week in and week out, even if he’s not at the caliber of a truly dominant cornerback, Fuller is the Bears’ locked in prized possession on the outside for the time being. His A-game has to be present every week, as solid play from Fuller helps maintain the fabric of the rest of the defense. If it isn’t, Chicago will have more issues defensively than they care to admit, and can even fix.
Where the buck stops
Two years this October, Jackson will have had a devastating broken leg suffered in his final season at Alabama firmly in the rearview mirror. A broken leg that took time away from preparations for his first NFL season. A full professional training regimen and a year of play under his belt, tunnel vision on a star end goal is more appropriate for the 24-year-old Jackson in 2018.
The first Bears’ safety of the new millennium to record at least five takeaways in his rookie year — not even Mike Brown could accomplish that — the trajectory of Jackson’s development points towards an improved second season. A genuine foundational safety for the Bears: when’s the last time you could say that for an organization that’s cycled through safeties like a roulette?
Sure, a lot of the plays that Jackson made in 2017 were of fortunate circumstances and him being in the right place at the right time. Think of the Bears’ game against the Panthers where Jackson scored twice. The ball just so happened to be in his hands at two crucial moments to seal the 17-3 upset over Carolina. He also just so happened to have two huge seams leading to breakaways the other way.
But the thing about making fortunate plays, is that you make your own luck as a prototypical NFL ballhawk. It just so happens that being being a ballhawk isn’t coincidental at all. Being in the right place at the right time is a skill. Navigating how an offense intends to fool and attack you, and you being prepared. It’s a combination of proper positioning, awareness, and the athleticism to break on the ball when opportunity knocks. Only so many defensive backs in the league are capable of this dangerous mix, and Jackson is one of them.
There were a lot of simple plays that Jackson left on the field as a rookie. Plays that with more experience, could’ve been more turnovers forced. And errors that happen to young players learning on the fly. Jackson’s next step is becoming a sharper tool for the Bears’ secondary. One that always does his job, and goes above and beyond as a difference maker.
As for Jackson’s main man in their buddy cop film, what Amos is capable of and what he needs to improve on is well known. The same goes for Fuller’s sidekick in Amukamara. Both reliable guys that do their job, but don’t extend much past their parameters.
Amos has one pick in three NFL seasons, despite being the hybrid linebacker in the box that emerged in 2017. Amukamara has a track record of struggling to catch interceptions and a previous run of issues with injuries. An interesting dichotomy presented towards the more experienced half of Chicago’s back end.
For Amos’ sake in seeking a new contract with the Bears, it would behoove him to show that he’s more than just a guy that does what’s asked, and is worth that massive extension. Being a guy that only does his job doesn’t get you far in the NFL: at least not based on the hype Amos often receives. Perhaps he’s more apt to be a star than originally believed. If Amos is going to show it, it’s 2018 or never.
In Amukamara’s case, it’s less likely he experiences any kind of jump in play at this late stage of his career. The 29-year-old is who he is: a solid and disciplined corner with his technique, but he can’t force turnovers, and sometimes can’t stay healthy. 2017 from that respect, was an outlier for the veteran in comparison to the rest of his resume. With two years guaranteed at $9 million apiece on a stable contract, it’s on Amukamara to not make the Bears regret their decision in riding with him for a while longer.
If there was a reasonable Bears plan to eventually supplant Amukamara, it might be lying in the wings come next draft, or with an undrafted free agent this year. It’ll be better for all parties if that pending boundary player is kept on the sidelines by Amukamara as long as possible, and receives every opportunity to learn before a baptism by fire.
Stability stands tall
It’s strange how the Bears have such a sharp divide between two more dynamic players in Fuller and Jackson, and two more “do-their-job” players in Amos and Amukamara in their secondary. A group split down the line in abilities.
Perhaps, that’s what Chicago needs, though. This defense needs players who know their roles and push to the limit only when called upon. This defense needs stability for all of the areas it doesn’t have it at the moment. Nowhere are the Bears more stable defensively as a whole than their secondary, for as contrasting as each of it’s main four members are.
The Bears’ edge pass rush could struggle. The defensive end opposite Akiem Hicks might take time to get accustomed to a larger role. The linebackers with Roquan Smith could experience growing pains. There are questions anywhere you could see fit to poke around.
The secondary led by Fuller has no such luxury. This Bears secondary is back together for a reason: they’re compatible and they work off one another. When that happens, change isn’t needed. Only continuity. Now’s the time to prove that the belief in Fuller and company meant something.
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.