By Chris Emma—

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) – On a busy Black Monday at Halas Hall, Bears general manager Ryan Pace met with fourth-year cornerback Kyle Fuller for an exit interview before sending him on his way.

Pace can hope it’s not his last meeting with Fuller, who’s slated to hit the open market in free agency this March. With the Bears looking for answers at cornerback, losing Fuller after a career year would be costly.

It was a year ago Tuesday that Pace openly stated in his year-end press conference that the team would decline Fuller’s fifth-year option, which would make him a free agent after the 2017 season. What followed was the type of year Pace clearly doubted Fuller could produce.

The 14th overall pick in 2014, Fuller played a full 16-game slate and recorded 69 tackles, 22 pass break-ups and two interceptions. The 22 break-ups marked more than he had posted during his first three NFL seasons combined and tied for second in the league with the Steelers’ Casey Hayward, trailing only the Lions’ Darius Slay.

This all followed a 2016 in which Fuller never took the field after an August knee procedure. Pace said he was proud of the 25-year-old Fuller.

“His preparation was outstanding,” Pace said Monday. “I think you can tell when a corner is prepared to play, and he can anticipate routes and things of that nature. Just a very professional approach. Very even-keeled approach. I think it started really with the way he attacked the offseason, and he had a good season because of that.”

Fuller had an incomplete resume before 2016, posting six interceptions in 16 games, including three interceptions in his first three NFL contests.

“I definitely feel like I’ve grown from that,” Fuller said. “You go through things to kind of put you where you are currently. It’s definitely a lot of things I learned from that. I’m thankful that I had to go through that. I’m happy where I’m at now.”

He will be the Bears’ top player set to hit the open market come March, and he’s important. Veteran cornerback Prince Amukamara was a steady defender but finished with no interceptions, while cornerback Marcus Cooper was a liability whose signing reflects poorly on Pace.

Should Pace let Fuller walk, he will have to be ready with a replacement – something he didn’t do in letting receiver Alshon Jeffery bolt for the Eagles last offseason. But re-signing Fuller will be a priority for the Bears, and he’s willing to listen. There’s appeal to staying put in Chicago.

“It would mean a lot,” Fuller said. “I started here. I’m happy. Just being able to work with the guys that are here, help them be a leader. That would definitely be really important for me.”

Fuller hasn’t put too much thought into his next contract, a refrain he repeated throughout the season as he boosted his market value. That will become a focus now that the offseason is officially underway. Fuller will soon speak with his agent, Joel Segal of Lagardere Unlimited, and sit down with his family.

Fuller can surely lean on his family, with older brothers Vincent and Corey longtime NFL players who have gone through free agency before.

After rebounding with a strong season, Fuller will soon discover his value in free agency – and whether he inspired belief from Pace.

“I haven’t really been thinking about too much outside of here,” Fuller said. “I’ve been here my first four years. I was drafted here. I haven’t really been exploring anything else. I’ll just take it step by step, handle it when everything comes up.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670 The Score 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.