By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) — Raving about a player’s special teams skills isn’t necessarily the best way to endear your first round pick to a fan base.
But turn on the tape. You’ll see what Phil Emery was talking about.
The Bears general manager passed on safeties Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 14th overall pick Thursday night and instead chose Kyle Fuller, a long, physical cornerback out of Virginia Tech.
“This is one tough football player,” Emery said. “This is a player with length, skill, athleticism, versatility, productivity and beyond that, the better part of him is he’s even a great person. He’s a great representative of the Chicago Bears.”
The only reason the pick was the least bit surprising is because both Pryor and Clinton-Dix were still available. But Emery had Fuller rated higher and decided the cornerback would have a greater impact on the Bears’ secondary.
So where will Fuller play in the secondary?
To start, he’ll play all over.
Emery said he saw Fuller play in person against Georgia Tech this season, a team that runs a unique triple-option that can be difficult to prepare against.
“They lined him up as a inverted safety and ran him through the A-gap against an option team to crash the mesh point between the quarterback and the fullback. And he repetitively did that,” Emery said.
Picture the 190 pound cornerback playing the role of an edge-rushing outside linebacker. Because that’s basically what Fuller did in that game. He had to go through multiple offensive linemen to get to the football, which he repeatedly did successfully.
“That’s very impressive. You don’t see too many 190 pound guys willing to do that,” Emery said.
Playing a similar role for most of his sophomore season, Fuller racked up 14.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in one season three years ago. He may have a lean build, but he’s a willing participant against the run and not afraid of contact, which why some believe Fuller has the skills to play safety.
Emery admitted last week that the Bears had evaluated all the cornerbacks in the draft to see if they could play safety, but it doesn’t appear that’s the plan for Fuller.
“He’s a corner,” Emery said Thursday night. “That’s how we see him. And we see him as a guy who has a lot versatility in terms of coverage. In terms of covering different types of athletes … that versatility in terms of coverage is a big attraction for Kyle.”
Which leads to the longterm plan for Kyle Fuller.
At 5-11 3/4 with 32 7/8 inch arms and a 38.5 inch vertical, Fuller has the length and athleticism to matchup against bigger receivers. If you didn’t notice, the Detroit Lions drafted tight end Eric Ebron Thursday night, a big, fast, dynamic tight end who can run the seam and create mismatches for any defense.
So who lines up against that guy? Fuller does. Because he’s already done it — when Virginia Tech played North Carolina — and had success.
Of course, Ebron just becomes another scary weapon on the Lions. In the NFC North, you always need to have a cornerback to match up against Calvin Johnson. Right now, Charles Tillman is still a Bear — and the team’s No. 1 cornerback for that matter — but he’s on a one-year contract and the Bears believe Fuller has the skills to replace Tillman down the road.
Shortly after the pick was made Thursday night, a Bears staffer — undoubtedly reacting to the negative reaction from fans who wanted a safety — asked a great question: Had the Bears not re-signed Tillman, would anyone be upset about the pick?
Remember, Tillman only played half the season last year and if he goes down again, Fuller might be asked to fill his role immediately.
In the meantime, the rookie out of Virginia Tech will provide much needed depth. The Bears hope he commands playing time as a nickel corner they can move all around the field. If all goes as planned, Fuller will likely beat out Kelvin Hayden and Isaiah Frey at the nickel spot and play a lot — most likely used as a weapon they can move around each week to eliminate a specific offensive threat. And if Fuller is on the field as a nickel, that means a linebacker is off the field, alleviating some of the concern at middle and strong side linebacker.
“My ability to be versatile — being able to play corner, slot. My ability to tackle. I feel like I have a good knowledge of the game. And then, overall, just my ability to make plays for my team,” Fuller said Thursday night in a conference call with reporters.
Fuller’s game film backs up both his and Emery’s claims about being able to line up all over the field. Press-man, off-man, slot, deep-middle, box. Fuller really did line up everywhere in the secondary for the Virginia Tech defense.
And then there’s the special teams impact, which Emery wasn’t kidding about.
“(Bears special teams coordinator) Joe DeCamillis had him as one of his highest rated special teams players,” the general manager said.
Fair or not, Fuller will likely always be compared to Calvin Pryor, who went to the Jets at No. 18, and especially to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who the Packers took at No. 21. Emery didn’t have much of a reaction when he was informed of the Packers’ pick as he was exiting the Halas Hall media room, but he knows how it works.
Only time will tell whether the Bears or Packers made the better pick, but on Thursday night, Emery had his mind made up and got his guy.
Fans may be upset that Fuller isn’t a safety, but if the cornerback puts together NFL tape that’s anything like the stuff he produced in college, then the Bears may have already filled a different giant need.
A replacement for Charles Tillman.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.