Name: Kyle Fuller
Time with Bears: 7 seasons
“Dalton is intercepted as Ross fell down, long runback here. Cutting back, KYLE FULLER, touchdown Chicago!”
If you wear number 23 in Chicago, you better be the best. Anything short of excellence simply won’t do; you’ll be an imposter in a city that will chew you up and spit you out. Devin Hester knew it. He referenced Michael Jordan multiple times when discussing the city and sports idols, and was no stranger to dishing out record-setting performances to earn the jersey. Like Hester, Kyle Fuller has earned the jersey.
Former Bears GM Phil Emery was well-known for striking out with day 2 picks. Names like Brandon Hardin and Ego Ferguson come to mind as the nails that sealed Emery’s coffin shut. Where Emery did have success, though, was with 1st round picks. When your worst 1st round selection is Shea McClellin, you can hang your hat on finding top talent where other GMs might outsmart themselves and reach. While Kyle Long could be the poster boy for early career success deterred by nagging injuries, Kyle Fuller is the story that GMs should point to as to why patience and development is important when a player is struggling to live up to the hype.
So what was the hype?
Fuller was a 4-year starter for a Power-5 school, something that goes a long way to show that his talent has never been a question. During Fuller’s freshman year, Virginia Tech was led by star quarterback Tyrod Taylor and looking to build off a stellar 10-3 campaign the year before. The young cornerback Fuller totaled 32 tackles, including 4 for a loss, and the production only increased from there. He picked 2 passes off his sophomore year, also recording 4.5 sacks and a staggering 14.5 tackles for a loss before following that up with another 2-pick season in his junior year. Though his senior season was cut short due to injury, he still picked 2 passes off and swatted 10 balls out of the air in just 7 games. That kind of production turns heads.
The Bears, meanwhile, were coming off a disaster of a season, Marc Trestman’s first as head coach. Despite starting 3-0 in 2013, Jay Cutler started giving the ball away via interceptions like Oprah gives cars to her audience, and then he went down with an injury. This would create the first quarterback controversy of his Bears tenure when Josh McCown played excellent football in relief of Cutler. Nevertheless, Cutler took his starting role back and the Bears squandered their last two games to limp to the finish. The Bears ended the season 8-8, missing playoffs without a high draft pick nor a promising future. They selected Fuller with the 14th overall pick, and immediately slotted him into their starting cornerback position opposite an aging Charles “Peanut” Tillman. The rebuild had started.
After another disappointing campaign in 2014 from most Bears players not named Kyle Fuller, head coach Marc Trestman and Emery were relieved of their duties. Then, the new Bears GM Ryan Pace hired veteran coach John Fox to coach the team. Fox brought defensive guru Vic Fangio with him to coach Fuller and company. With such a defensive focus, the hope was that Fuller would develop into one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Unfortunately, a trend in the opposite direction happened. Tackles, both solo and combined, as well as interceptions all dipped down in Fuller’s sophomore campaign, and penalties increased. After Fuller spent his entire 3rd season on IR with a knee injury, the Bears declined his 5th year contract option and the word “bust” started creeping into conversation. Compounding on top of that, the Bears overhauled the cornerback position, signing veteran cornerbacks Prince Amukumara and Marcus Cooper to potentially take Fuller’s job.
In a “contract year” in 2017, Fuller’s career finally took off the way a 1st round pick’s career is meant to in their prime. The fire the Bears lit under him paid off, as he swatted a career-high 22 passes down and picked 2 balls off that year, according to NFL.com. The Bears started trusting him with covering an opposing team’s #1 receiver, and he started shutting those receivers down. The Bears were building a defense through the draft, with Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos, and Leonard Floyd all added around Fuller to establish a top-10 defense. Where Jackson was flashy, Fuller was consistent. Where Amos was smart, Fuller was talented. Where Floyd was speedy, Fuller was agile. Vic Fangio’s defense was building something special with young talent.
2018 saw the welcoming of former Defensive Player of the Year linebacker Khalil Mack, who immediately struck fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. Fuller, along with the entire defensive back unit, licked their lips at the thought of quarterbacks rushing throws into heavy coverage. The Bears had kept Fuller for another long contract, placing a restricted free-agent tag on him and matching the Packers’ lucrative contract offer to keep him in Navy and Orange. Fuller did not hesitate to earn every penny of his big paycheck. In his 5th year as a pro, he led the NFL with 7 interceptions, nearly tied his career-high with 21 passes defensed, and was a major part of the Bears winning the NFC North with a 12-4 record. Fuller and Jackson made Soldier Field a no-fly zone and both were selected to the NFL All-Pro team for 2018.
Injuries around him limited Fuller’s production in 2019, as the Bears’ pass rush fell off the map and Fuller was covering players for much longer. As anybody will tell you, even the best defensive backs in the business can only cover a receiver for so long. Extended plays are a primary reason why defensive backs end up getting burnt; the median snap-to-throw time in the NFL is 2.69 seconds according to Next-Gen Stats and a coach can’t really expect a defensive back to cover for much longer than a receiver’s second move. Without an adequate pass rush due to injuries up front, Fuller was tackling (81) more than he was defending passes (12). Even still, on a down year, he picked off 3 passes and made this outstanding touchdown-saving tackle against the Detroit Lions. He made his second Pro Bowl in 2019, and like his draftmate Charles Leno Jr. who we spotlighted here, he’s gotten better almost every year he’s been in the league.
Fuller has started 2020 strong, already defending 5 passes and totaling 19 tackles through 5 games. His contribution to takeaways is what’s even sweeter. In week 1 against the Detroit Lions, the Bears were quickly slicing into a double-digit deficit when quarterback Matthew Stafford threw an ill-advised pass into double-coverage. Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson tipped the pass, and Kyle Fuller ran under it beautifully to secure it and run it back for an extra 6 yards. After a beautiful throw from Mitch Trubisky to Anthony Miller, the Bears took the lead and held on to win the game. In a week 5 matchup with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bears were struggling to do anything on offense and looked lost. After falling behind 13-0 in the first half, they finally scored a touchdown inside the two-minute warning and the defense came out to try to keep it a one-score game. Instead, Brady threw a pass to Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Kyle Fuller threw his shoulder into the ball to force a fumble. The Bears picked it up and scored a touchdown of their own before halftime, and the Bears hung on to win after a late field goal. Fuller’s interception in the Lions game and forced fumble in the Bucs game were instrumental in the Bears coming back and winning.
With two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, the Bears have high expectations of Kyle Fuller. As Jaylon Johnson develops on the other side, the Bears need Fuller and Jackson to work their magic they’ve become known so well for in their years together here in Chicago. Most teams remaining on the 2020 schedule have a Pro Bowl receiver, and Fuller will need to keep them in check for the Bears to have a chance to win those games. If Fuller is going to wear the GOAT’s number, he needs to be the greatest cornerback in Bears history. He may be on his way.
The aforementioned mega-contract Fuller signed prior to the 2018 season was for 4 years, and with 2 already served, the Bears should look to extend Fuller after this season. Jaylon Johnson is already looking to be a fantastic day-2 pick for the Bears, playing lights-out so far in his rookie year. The Bears already locked safety Eddie Jackson up through the 2022 season, so the longer the Bears can field the 3 of them together, the better. At only 28 years old, Fuller should still have quite a few Pro Bowl seasons ahead of him. The Bears can’t let him do this for another team.
In the more immediate future, the Bears will travel to Charlotte, NC in week 6, after winning a Thursday Night Football matchup against Tom Brady. They’ll have extra time to prepare for Carolina, so the defense should be ready. The last time the Bears faced the Panthers, in 2017, the defense was the sole reason the Bears won, scoring 2 touchdowns (both by Eddie Jackson) and holding Carolina to just a single field goal for 3 points. The Panthers have since shown their former MVP quarterback Cam Newton the door, signing journeyman Teddy Bridgewater to fill the role. The Bears last faced Bridgewater in 2019 when he was with the Saints, and Bridgewater played the Bears smart, throwing for 281 yards and 2 touchdowns against 0 interceptions. The Saints went run-heavy in that game, and the Bears defense couldn’t stop them. There’s at least a chance the Panthers could activate Christian McCaffery off IR for their matchup with the Bears, and Kyle Fuller may be delegated into a containment role if this happens. If McCaffery does not play, the Panthers will likely start former Bear Mike Davis at running back. Expect a healthy mix of run and pass, and Fuller to be working on Robby Anderson all game.
Week 6 stat prediction:
5 total tackles, 4 solo, 2 passes defensed