By Chris Emma

By Chris Emma—

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Expectations for Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, the team’s 2014 first-round pick, started at the ground floor in this pivotal season.

General manager Ryan Paceemphasized prior to training camp that he simply wanted to see Fuller stack together healthy practices and provide the opportunity for an important evaluation. It was Pace’s predecessor, Phil Emery, who selected Fuller with the 14th overall pick in 2014 after out on future All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald the slot before.

Since arriving in Chicago in January 2015, Pace has been waiting on something more from the inconsistent Fuller. There certainly isn’t a great attachment, especially after Pace in April declined the fifth-year option on Fuller, making 2017 the final season of his contract.

But Pace did hold onto Fuller and gave him one more chance this season – first to stay healthy after missing the entire 2016 campaign recovering from a knee procedure, then to show he can make an impact.

“He’s just shown that he’s healthy,” Pace said days before the regular-season opener. “You can see that his movement skills have improved. He’s playing confident right now.

“I’m just proud of the way he’s come back and persevered through those injuries.”

Fuller has always approached the game with an edge, and that remains the same as he works through a contract season. The hunger is ever present, as teammate Marcus Cooper noticed early on.

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – who didn’t hold back with criticism of Fuller’s drive a year ago – said he sees Fuller looking better than his 2015 form so far.

Evaluations are ongoing, but Fuller is off to a solid start. It began with an opportunity after Prince Amukamara suffered an ankle injury in the preseason, opening the door for Fuller to step back in as a starter. In the opener, he kept Falcons star receiver Julio Jones in check by being more physical. Amukamara returned to action last week, but the Bears kept Fuller as the starter and worked a three-cornerback rotation along with Cooper.

The Bears (1-2) will rely on all three cornerbacks when they face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (2-1) at Lambeau Field on Thursday. These matchups will be especially important without injured veteran safety Quintin Demps deep in the secondary.

Through three games, the Bears are still without an interception – this after finishing dead last in takeaways a year ago. In watching film, Rodgers has seen the Bears secondary coming closer to takeaways, he said, but he’s not one to typically serve up interceptions.

Ultimately, Fuller will be judged how well he keeps opposing receivers in check and the turnovers he forces. If he can make a difference for the Bears defense, this will be a successful season.

The drive is strong as Fuller works to prove himself in 2017.

“Kyle’s been a true pro,” Amukamara said. “Just to respond the way he’s responding this year, after the team not picking up his option, you would think the guy would be down on himself and have no confidence. But he’s coming out swinging, playing real tough.

“Definitely proud of him. I hope he breaks the bank after this year.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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