For a time, Kyle Fuller’s Bears career was marred. He was an afterthought. Having been the player selected right after Aaron Donald, expectations for Fuller as a No. 1 cornerback couldn’t have been higher. The former Virginia Tech standout was no slouch, and he even showed off choice playmaking early during his 2014 rookie season. But barring consistent explosions, he was never going to live up to the gifts, the accolades, and the sheer superstardom of someone like Donald.
Then it all changed in 2017. After missing the previous year due to recovery from a knee injury, Fuller finally came into his own in the final stand of the John Fox era. He punished ball carriers with a now trademark physicality, most often coming in the form of a rigid, cold shoulder. He ran stride for stride with his assigned receivers, never losing a step, and sometimes even running their routes for them. Of any skill for a top cornerback to have, it was his ability to play the ball in the air, either through interceptions or defensed passes, that made him an unquestioned asset to a budding elite defense. From 2017 to 2018, no defensive back batted away more passes (43) than Fuller. No one made life more of a living hell on quarterbacks, who, for whatever reason, decided to test Fuller regardless of this prowess.
What would follow was the compact 5-foot-11 machine finally realizing his potential.
In 2018, Fuller received a First-Team All-Pro nod not only for his league-leading seven interceptions, but for his being one of the cornerstones on one of the greatest statistical NFL defenses ever. He followed up that campaign with a sterling 2019 season and a second-straight Pro Bowl nod, becoming one of only three recent Bears cornerbacks in the modern era — alongside Tim Jennings (2012, 2013) and Charles Tillman (2011, 2012) — to make an appearance in Hono-lando in consecutive years. Fuller was at the very peak of his game.
Through this time, from 2017-2020 that is, Fuller was nothing but business. 66 straight starts, including the postseason (never mind that he only missed two games overall in the six seasons he did play). An emblem of leadership through availability and responsibility. Not a word uttered out of place to opponents. A quiet beating was all the opposition would receive, likely making his presence even more intimidating. And while I’m certain some would have still reasonably preferred Donald in his stead, suddenly that fateful 2014 selection didn’t sting so much anymore. By the end of his Bears career, saying Fuller was one of the best, or, perhaps, most talented cornerbacks in franchise history, was not a strange conversation to have in the least.
The Bears in 2021 have their fair share of issues. Defensively, they’re about to lean on a second-year cornerback in Jaylon Johnson, who has a history of shoulder problems that already reared their ugly head when he was a rookie. His partner, newly-signed Desmond Trufant, hasn’t appeared in double-digit games in over two seasons. Both cornerbacks, at their best, can be gifted playmakers and ball-hawks in their own right. But they either haven’t yet proven to be reliable enough (Johnson), or haven’t been reliable (Trufant) in a long time. In a league predicated on the boundary in the passing game more than ever, having two sizable question marks at cornerback presents a massive concern to the Bears’ on-field hopes this fall.
Fuller, his previous faults aside, would not be manning such a chasm. If he was still tearing up grass at Soldier Field, cornerback would appear to be a relative strength for Chicago. He’d bring a quiet confidence to the right side of the field, in the process of intercepting and deflecting a ball or ten, or making sure ball-carriers didn’t roam around his space. He’d allow a young buck like Johnson to thrive and continue to grow at his own pace before taking the vaunted mantel of CB1. And the Bears, for all the potholes they’re actively trying to cover, would not nearly be as precarious on the exterior of their defensive shell.
A Bears legend, Fuller would be one of the straws that stirred Chicago’s newest drink. He certainly made enough plays and had enough longevity over the course of his six full seasons on the lakefront to earn such respect. But it’s too bad we can only reminisce upon this kind of impactful addition, given just how long ago Fuller really played. It’s a testament to his tremendous skill that he’d able to transfer over well and fit in regardless of the high contrast in professional football eras between 2020 and 2021. Not many players could handle such a shift, especially given the countless rule changes and shifts in off-field nutrition and training. But Fuller could. That’s how special he was.
One’s thing for sure. If the Bears had Fuller in their grasp they would never let something as trivial and easily managed through general competence, something like team finances, get in the way of retaining one of their premier homegrown talents. Fuller would be too good and too necessary to the integrity of a classic Bears defense to suggest otherwise.
Now it’s your turn.
Which player from Bears history are you placing on the current roster?