While the NFL Draft and unrestricted free agency get most of the headlines in the offseason, retaining current free agents, even on larger deals, is often overlooked. Accurately identifying which players to re-sign, and more importantly which not to re-sign, sets well run organizations – like the Patriots – apart from the rest of the league. The Bears have a number of tough decisions to make this offseason.
But none more important than whether or not to re-sign Kyle Fuller.
Fuller, the Bears’ 2014 first-round pick, got off to a fast start his rookie season becoming the first NFL player in over 20 years to record three interceptions and two forced fumbles in his first three NFL games according to Larry Mayer. While the rest of his season wasn’t as fruitful, there were high hopes for the rookie corner heading into Year Two. It looked like the Bears finally found their lockdown corner of the future.
Unfortunately, Fuller’s second season can be summed up in one word: forgettable.
He recorded two interceptions but never approached the level of play he showed in his first few games. After the season, he had microscopic knee surgery and missed all of 2016. There was some debate as to whether or not he could have played in that year, but I won’t get into that. Every player and injury is different, so if a player says he is too injured to pay, I am inclined to believe him.
A year ago, it would have been insane to even talk about extending Fuller. Even before he missed an entire season, he just wasn’t living up to expectations.
There were even talks that Fuller could potentially be cut this preseason. He was all but forgotten in a secondary that was desperate for talent. So much so the Bears signed Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper in free agency to start over him. After his 2018 option was not picked up by the team, it looked like the writing was on the wall for the former Phil Emery first-round pick.
Fuller was sitting at a career crossroads before this last season. Would he finally live up to his high draft pick? Or would he continue to be inconsistent and fade into obscurity after a tumultuous four years in Chicago?
The case for an extension
Fuller answered all of his detractor’s questions by having his best year in 2017. He only had two interceptions, but he recorded a career-high 22 pass break ups and was consistently making things difficult for opposing wide receivers. Pro Football Focus rated him as the 23rd best cornerback in the NFL and the second highest graded Bears secondary player (Adrian Amos).
After the first few weeks of the season, Fuller moved up the depth chart and was tasked with covering the opposing team’s number one wide receiver. With the exception of a few hiccups, he was able to lock them down consistently.
Just watch the Bengals and Browns game and you will see Fuller locking down A.J. Green and Josh Gordon respectively. While he does not possess the desired ball skills of a number one corner, he can still affect an offensive game plan.
As great as he was in coverage, he was equally as impressive defending the run. Now, cornerbacks will always get paid based on their coverage ability. But a good run defending corner is hard to find, yet extremely valuable to a defense. Bears fans should recognize the value a good tackling corner can provide considering we had the best tackling cornerback in the NFL for 12 years in Charles Tillman.
Fuller was able to consistently make huge open field tackles. And when he can’t make the play himself, he is good at setting the edge to force the runner back inside where Danny Trevathan can be the tackling machine that he is.
Amukamara, Cooper, Sherrick McManis, and Bryce Callahan (RFA) could all potentially leave this offseason, which makes bringing back Fuller all the more important.
The case for letting him walk
Fuller did have a tremendous year in 2017, there is no denying that. But to ignore the previous three seasons is irresponsible. Fuller did not look good at times when he played prior to this season. He would show the occasional flashes, but overall looked lost and even disinterested at times.
There is also the issue of the few “hiccups” I mentioned earlier. The second game against the Packers immediately comes to mind. He looked a step slow on most plays and Davante Adams had his way with him. If it were Aaron Rodgers playing quarterback I could give him a pass, but not against Brett Hundley.
Then there is the issue of the contract he would command. This is not a great cornerback free agent class with Trumaine Johnson and Malcolm Butler being the top two players. While both are good corners, neither is a true shutdown guy. You can make the argument Fuller is the next best free agent corner so he should have a lot of suitors, which will drive up his price.
It’s always wise to be wary of a player who has his best season in a contract year. If his price does get too high, the Bears could let him walk and hope to recoup a compensatory draft pick from him if he signs with another team.
How much would Chicago have to pay him?
Well let’s take a look at last year’s free agent cornerbacks to get an idea.
- AJ Bouye: five-year, $67,500,000 contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars, including $26,000,000 guaranteed
- Stephon Gilmore: five-year, $65,000,000 contract with the New England Patriots, $40,000,000 guaranteed
- Logan Ryan: three-year, $30,000,000 contract with the Tennessee Titans, including $16,000,000 guaranteed
If Fuller were to be re-signed, I would expect him to get a similar deal to Logan Ryan. Like Ryan’s contract, most of the guaranteed money would be upfront with the final year essentially a team option. This way, the Bears can easily cut ties if Fuller struggles.
Why would Fuller accept a deal like that? Because the Bears have one other option: the franchise tag.
If the Bears did go this route, they would owe Fuller a one-year contract equal to the average salaries of the top-five highest paid cornerbacks. That number for the 2017 season was $14.21 million. Expect that number to be similar this season. This would also allow to trade him if he refuses to sign in Chicago.
What should the Bears do?
It depends on how they view Fuller. Do they see him as an ascending player who finally put it all together? Or as an underachieving first-round pick who got lucky in a contract year?
With the exception of a couple games, Fuller played extremely well all season. And while those few games cannot be overlooked, he certainly earned a second contract in Chicago. The Bears have drafted so poorly over the last decade that they cannot afford to let good players go for nothing.
With Vic Fangio returning to the Bears, they will need someone who is familiar with the scheme at a position that should see a lot of roster turnover this offseason. A three-year, incentive-laden deal should get the job done. And if all else fails, the franchise tag should be utilized.