By Chris Emma—
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (CBS) – There’s a quiet confidence to Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller that still prevails after these difficult years. It speaks the volumes his voice rarely lends.
Though his reputation has been tested, Fuller’s belief in himself remains just as strong. He’s still that first-round pick inside.
“He has that mentality that he wants to be the best,” teammate Marcus Cooper said. “You can’t take that away from anybody, and you can’t discourage that from him.”
Fuller enters his fourth training camp in uncharted waters – fighting for a place with the Bears. The No. 14 overall pick of Phil Emery in 2014, Fuller is now in a battle just to make general manager Ryan Pace’s roster. Fuller had been listed the starter at cornerback entering these last three seasons and now has little ground on which to stand.
Frustration followed Fuller in 2016 when a seemingly routine knee scope in August turned into a lost season. There were moments he felt close to returning, but then setbacks struck. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called out Fuller during a press conference last December, explaining that he had been cleared but wasn’t “champing at the bit” to return.
Fuller said he wanted to be on the field with his teammates. The Bears’ 3-13 record came in part because of struggles in the secondary.
This team needed a top cornerback.
“It was very difficult, frustrating,” Fuller said. “But it was something I had to go through. I’ve come back from that now, so that’s the most important part.”
The Bears haven’t given up on Fuller yet, but their patience is certainly wearing thin. Pace declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Fuller, making this a contract season. The team wants Fuller to go out and earn his place in Chicago. If he’s not in the Bears’ plans, exploring a trade would be the first avenue.
Evaluations for Fuller start at the ground floor. The Bears aren’t looking at him with those same first-round hopes anymore. Fangio said his assessment will be fresh after missing him all 2016. Pace will be watching closely.
“From what I can gather, he’s had a great summer,” Pace said at the beginning of training camp. “He has been working hard. So, I think the key for him is just staying healthy and putting together consistent practices. And if he does that, it’s going to be an important evaluation.”
Of course, those progress reports on Fuller will be just as important around the league as to the Bears. A team like the Eagles could emerge as a suitor to Fuller if he continues to look healthy and productive in camp. One could expect him to see a number of reps in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Broncos.
Fuller has seen more good moments than bad in training camp. He has been active around the football, which is important to a team desperate to take away the football. Fangio is just pleased to see that Fuller is playing in good health after battling the knee injury last August.
“He comes out there every day and he gives it his all,” Cooper said of Fuller. “That’s just something I appreciate about him.
“You see hunger there.”
The Bears have added to their cornerback room with veterans like Cooper and Prince Amukamara. They join Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc, both of whom can play inside and out. Sherrick McManis will likely stick in a special teams role. That makes five, and if Pace maneuvers as he did last year, the team will carry six cornerbacks on the active roster.
Fuller is going up against Johnthan Banks, B.W. Webb and others for a roster spot. Unless he really dazzles in camp, a role in special teams may be what decides the final cuts. It’s something the Bears have contemplated with Fuller if he remains a fit.
Prior to last season, Fuller hadn’t dealt with any injuries in the NFL. He had played two full seasons, recording six interceptions and 19 pass breakups. His sophomore season finished strong and left the Bears confident in what they had, but 2016 changed sentiments inside Halas Hall.
There hasn’t been major consideration to moving Fuller over to safety, a switch that second-year pro Deiondre’ Hall made after one season at cornerback. The Bears drafted Fuller into Mel Tucker’s zone-based defense, which is a different look to what Fangio now runs. Meanwhile, this unit recorded just eight interceptions in 16 games last season — dead last in the NFL.
Fuller can sway his name back into good favor by proving to be an asset in coverage.
“We’re going to need takeaways,” Fuller said. “It’s just an important aspect. We’re working on that every day.”
The decision to decline his fifth-year option didn’t hurt Fuller, despite the weight it carried. He isn’t worried about this being a contract season. Any concerns over making the roster amid a competitive battle? No, he confidently replied.
Fuller knows well what he faces this season. His days with the Bears could be numbered, and yet the realities won’t get him down.
Whether it’s in Chicago or somewhere else, Fuller still believes he can be a shutdown cornerback.
“No doubt in my mind,” he said.