One of the most interesting dilemmas that the Bears face this offseason is what happens with Kyle Fuller. This dilemma began to take shape on April 29th, when Ryan Pace and the Bears declined the 5th year option for the 2014 first round pick. Fuller was Defensive Rookie of the Month after famously intercepting 3 passes and forcing 2 fumbles in a span of 2 primetime games in the 1st month of the season. The remainder of 2014 and 2015 Fuller had his share of ups and downs in all phases of coverage, before missing all of the 2016 season with a knee injury. With the uncertainty of his health and performance, the Bears declined to guarantee Fuller’s option year at a cost of $8,526,000.
In what is now a contract year, Kyle Fuller has shown Bears fans what they thought they were getting with the 14th overall pick. While Fuller hasn’t gotten back to that amazing 2-game sample of forcing turnovers he had in his rookie year, he has been the team’s best cornerback this season. Fuller has more than held his own this year against some of the league’s elite wide receivers such as Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and AJ Green. Though Fuller’s been targeted a league-high 98 times, he’s allowed a very respectable 51 catches, 640 yards, and 2 TDs. That’s good for a 75.2 quarterback rating against. While those aren’t “shutdown” cornerback numbers, as a reference, the only quarterbacks still starting in the league with a lower rating are rookie Deshone Kizer and Tom Savage, who is only starting because of injury.
Fuller is having a really strong season, but he still is what he always has been. He still has issues in man coverage. He still is kind of a mess when he has to turn his back to the quarterback and run with a receiver, as shown in his worst game of the season vs. Davante Adams and Green Bay. But Fuller is also still really good in zone and off-man coverage. Whether it’s adapting the scheme to fit his strengths or him finally being healthy, Fuller has shown great route recognition this year. His ability to click and close has led to 16 pass deflections, tied for 4th best in the NFL. However, those targets and deflections haven’t turned into turnovers consistently enough. After 5 turnovers in a 2-week span to start his career, Fuller has only forced 3 turnovers since 2015 (including a missed season). On one hand, Fuller is a non-shutdown corner who doesn’t force turnovers. On the other, he’s a versatile 25-year old just coming into his prime and is, at worst, a very high-end #2 corner on a potentially good defense. So the question becomes…..how much is Fuller worth?
When estimating how much it will take to sign a free agent player, it’s smart to look at the contracts handed out to similar players in the previous free agency period. The two best comps for what Kyle Fuller can expect on the open market are Logan Ryan and Dre Kirkpatrick. Ryan signed a 3-year, $30 million contract with the Titans, while Kirkpatrick re-signed in Cincinnati for 5 years and $52.5 million. Kirkpatrick is probably the most similar to Fuller, as he was also a 1st round pick (17th overall) and had his share of struggles before putting it all together in his contract year (though his 5th-year option was picked up by the Bengals). I estimate Fuller’s next deal to be similar: in the $10 million per year range, and I think he’ll split the difference earning a 4-year deal.
At 25, Fuller is the 2nd youngest defensive back on the market by just a week. And the Bears are clearly not talented enough to let young talent walk without replacing him with similar, as witnessed by the Alshon Jeffery fiasco of last offseason. Speaking of Jeffery, the biggest reason he’s not still a Chicago Bear is that he simply did not want to be here. No one knows for sure what Pace offered Alshon to stay, but it is said to have been competitive. However, somewhere along the lines, bridges were burned and Jeffery wanted to move on. My fear is that history may repeat itself with Kyle Fuller. I have some concerns about Fuller’s perception of the organization right now. Last year at this time, Fuller’s season officially ended after the Bears opened up the 21-day window for him to practice and potentially return from IR. Shortly thereafter, comments surfaced from defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, which seemed to question Fuller’s desire. Fangio stated that Fuller received medical clearance but wasn’t “chomping at the bit” to get back on the field to close out last season. Since then, the Bears declined Fuller’s aforementioned 5th-year option, allegedly made him available for trade, and signed 2 free agents to move him down the depth chart. It remains to be seen if Fuller holds any grudges with the organization.
Ultimately, money matters most in this dilemma. I’d imagine Pace knows what the market is for a non-shutdown cornerback. If Kyle Fuller is interested in re-signing, he’ll be paid fair market value to stay. If Fuller wants to play elsewhere, Pace is probably going to have to spend similarly on a player of equal caliber. And being that both starters and the top nickel are free agents, losing Fuller could lead to another, more expensive overall of the cornerback position.