By Chris Emma–
(670 The Score) As it turned out, the Bears did cornerback Kyle Fuller a favor by declining his fifth-year option.
Motivated as ever, Fuller bounced back with a career year in 2017, posting a pair of interceptions, 22 pass break-ups and making himself one of the top free-agent cornerbacks available on the open market this March.
Meanwhile, the Bears once again head into free agency with a need at cornerback. Fuller and Prince Amukamara, their two top corners last season, are both unrestricted free agents, putting general manager Ryan Pace is on the spot.
What will Pace and the Bears do this time around to ensure the pass coverage at corner? That starts with in-house decisions.
Slated to return: Marcus Cooper, 28; Cre’Von LeBlanc, 23.
After the Bears struck out on the big-name cornerback market last spring, they turned to Amukamara on a one-year deal and locked in Cooper for three. After a disappointing first year, it’s possible that Cooper could be released, which would open $4.5 million in cap space for 2018.
Cooper was slated as a starter last season but wound up starting in just four games. A year before in Arizona, he had posted four interceptions and played at a high level. Given the Bears’ need at cornerback, it would make sense to keep Cooper on the roster and hope for some of that 2016 form.
LeBlanc joined the Bears in 2016 as an undrafted free agent and has brought the Bears solid depth at cornerback. He should compete to be the team’s nickel corner.
Set for free agency: Kyle Fuller, 26 (UFA); Prince Amukamara, 28 (UFA); Bryce Callahan, 26 (RFA); Sherrick McManis, 30.
The story of free agency last March wasn’t what the Bears came away with but rather what they missed out on — especially at the position of cornerback. A.J. Bouye, Logan Ryan and Stephon Gilmore led the group of top free-agent corners. The Bears signed Amukamara and Cooper, two veterans whom they believed had upside.
This time around, the Bears will begin their free-agent plans from within, evaluating the value of Fuller and Amukamara for the coming years. Their cases carry unique circumstances.
The 14th pick in 2014, Fuller has produced results during his four years in the NFL. His career began with strong play as a rookie, saw ups and downs as a sophomore and then brought a challenging 2016 in which he sat out recovering from an August knee procedure. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was blunt in saying he didn’t see Fuller “champing at the bit” to return.
From there, the Bears opted to decline his fifth-year option for the 2018 season, then watched a more aggressive, confident cornerback. Fuller showed the kind of ball skills that made him a first-round pick, attacking in coverage. He was constantly picked on by opposing offenses but stayed steady in his play.
Fuller had said upon cleaning out his locker that the connection to the Bears organization could lead him back. However, it’s possible that another general manager could covet him more than Pace. The franchise tag is also an option, keeping Fuller with the Bears for this season and opening an exclusive negotiating window for a long-term deal through July 15.
Amukamara finished a second consecutive season with zero interceptions, something for which he was disappointed, but his play shouldn’t be reflected in one statistic.
A first-round pick in 2011, Amukamara has proved to play at a quality level during his seven years in the league. He’s a reliable presence, which is something the Bears and other teams should covet. At 28, Amukamara should have more good years ahead. He, too, would be worth retaining.
Callahan has been an ideal fit at the nickel and should return to the Bears. The same can be said for McManis, who has been a special teams standout during his career.
The Bears can enter 2018 feeling good about their future at cornerback if Fuller and Amukamara are locked in as the starters, but how will it play out?
With the purge of veteran contracts underway, the Bears are positioning themselves to be among the teams with the most salary cap space come free agency. Pace can aggressively pursue a target like Malcolm Butler or Trumaine Johnson if he sees either as an upgrade to Fuller — or perhaps even pairing one alongside Fuller.
Adding a player like Patrick Robinson, E.J. Gaines or Lemarcus Joyner would also solidify the Bears at cornerback, but it depends on whether Pace feels strongly about his two cornerbacks set for the open market.
The Bears could make a move at cornerback with the eighth pick. Alabama star Minkah Fitzpatrick — who can thrive at either cornerback or safety — is unlikely to be available by the Bears’ slot, but Ohio State’s Denzel Ward would be an excellent addition. Iowa’s Josh Jackson is a player flying under the radar who may draw more attention after the NFL Combine.