By Chris Emma–
(670 The Score) By the end of the 2016 season, it seemed the Bears had all but given up on cornerback Kyle Fuller.
The 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Fuller didn’t play a game that season while recovering from a knee procedure that August. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had called out a lack of desire to return by December, and general manager Ryan Pace — who inherited Fuller less than a year after he was drafted — said one day after the season ended that the Bears would decline Fuller’s fifth-year option.
The Bears weren’t expecting the kind of bounce-back season Fuller put together in 2017, his final year under contract with the team. Fuller, who turned 26 last Friday, posted 69 tackles, a pair of interceptions and was tied for second in the league with 22 pass breakups, all statistics indicating a newfound aggression stemmed by confidence.
“I definitely feel like I’ve grown from that,” Fuller said in January of his first three NFL seasons. “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.”
Fuller is set to become one of the top cornerbacks available in free agency, unless the Bears prevent him from the open market and tender the franchise tag, which they can first do as of Tuesday.
This is one of many important decisions for Pace in a crucial offseason, as the team needs to shore up a priority position. The Bears are facing uncertainty at cornerback with Fuller, Prince Amukamara and Bryce Callahan all slated for free agency. Their top returning cornerback would be Marcus Cooper, a candidate for release after a disappointing 2017 season.
Retaining Fuller for a season by virtue of the franchise tag would be a simple solution. It would open a window through the July 16 deadline to negotiate a long-term deal and secure a talented player at a position of need for the 2018 season. Last year’s franchise tag secured a cornerback $14.212 million, and it could be a higher number this year.
However, there’s a negative effect that often comes with the franchise tag. It’s considered a slight to players seeking a long-term deal, stability with one team and the belief of their general manager.
The Bears last tendered the tag to Alshon Jeffery two years ago, still not convinced he could be a game-changing receiver. After that, Jeffery had little interest in rejoining the Bears last March, instead electing to sign with the Eagles. He ended the season catching a touchdown in Super Bowl LII and helping Philadelphia to its first Lombardi Trophy.
“This is who wanted me,” Jeffery said in the aftermath of the Super Bowl. “The Eagles wanted me more than any other team. I went where I was wanted, not where I was unwanted.”
Losing a talented player like Fuller in free agency would be a bad look for Pace and the Bears, the same as it was with Jeffery. A team that has gone 14-34 since Pace took over in 2015 can’t afford to lose key starters in free agency. Plus, it could be another situation in which a player’s future value was miscalculated by this regime.
Cornerbacks like Malcolm Butler, Trumaine Johnson and Rashaan Melvin present alternatives for the Bears in free agency, as all are talented players of equal or greater value to Fuller. But the Bears struck out last March in the market for cornerbacks, settling instead for Amukamara and Cooper. Knowing that risk, why look elsewhere when there’s a strong candidate in-house?
The Bears are best suited using the window ahead in these next two weeks to negotiate a long-term deal with Fuller and seeing if they can reach an agreement. If the franchise tag is a last resort, they will have ample cap room to pay out that one-year deal and extend the negotiating window through July.
“It would mean a lot,” Fuller said of a long-term deal with the Bears. “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.”