In career year, Kyle Fuller putting Bears in familiar precarious spot

By Robert Zeglinski

[dropcap]Around[/dropcap] this time last year, former Bears’ 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller had voluntarily shut himself down for the season following an unsuccessful knee scope. In a game of cat and mouse, it seemed Vic Fangio and the Bears weren’t too privy as to buying the 25-year-old’s excuse for recusing himself from play. Either Fuller wasn’t healthy, was interested in self-preservation, or both. But the question of Fuller’s commitment to the organization and unproven skill level remained nonetheless.

Time heals all wounds, at least theoretically.

A little over 13 months later, aside from still occasional inconsistencies, Fuller looks every bit the player once selected No. 14 overall. He looks like the gifted athletic freak former general manager Phil Emery envisioned adding to the Bears defense. With a tinge of necessary physical swagger. He looks like, well, a No. 1 cornerback.

In a revelation of health (showing that his 2016 decision was likely the correct move), Fuller’s availability — which is the best ability an NFL player can have — has led to newfound confidence and a player the Bears have been able to count on locking down offense’s No. 1 receiving options with regularity.

The latest victim in that regard being the Browns’ electric Josh Gordon, who when matched up with Fuller this past Sunday had exactly zero catches for zero yards. Fuller, of course, also went to on record a career-high six passes defended along with an interception at a snowy Soldier Field in what was easily one of the best games he’s ever played. While everyone else on the playing field looked like they had trouble establishing solid-footing, Fuller worked as if he was gliding with special cleats on balance. A player not phased by inclement weather.

John Fox made sure to praise Fuller in that vain while mentioning the health struggles he went through.

“… My hat’s off to him (Fuller) because last year was a very frustrating year, especially for him being injured,” said Fox. “To work like he did this offseason and prepare. He’s the guy that is at the top of the list every week as far as opponent video, as far as time and hours spent on it.”

What Fox touches on there is another testament to the success of Fuller. No other cornerback in the NFL has been targeted as much as he has this season. Despite this arduous workload, quarterbacks have a mediocre 75.0 quarterback rating when targeting him.

This is a cornerback in Fuller that makes offensive coordinators scheme around him. A cornerback, peaking at the right time and daring quarterbacks to test him.

What’s been most impressive about Fuller’s game this year is his 22 passes defensed in 15 games — by far a career high, and more than doubling his previous best marks of 9 and 10 in 2015 and 2014, respectively. Only the Lions’ Darius Slay — a 2017 Pro Bowler — has more with 23 this season. And, of note, the only Bear to ever have more in an individual year was Donnell Woolford with 27 — way back in 1992. Charles Tillman, revered as the best cornerback to ever put on a Chicago uniform, never reached these heights. Quite the company to surpass and join.

The Bears would no doubt like to see Fuller be more of a ballhawk, having more than a mere two interceptions. But defending passes shows a cornerback playing with reckless but controlled abandon, and no fear while sticking to receivers like glue. Interceptions and turnovers are difficult to come by regardless of skill level. Passes defended showcase a guy not making many missteps in coverage, as Fuller for the most part has.

All of this brings about a crucial question in one of the most pivotal upcoming off-seasons in Bears’ franchise history. As Fox finishes his coaching tenure, Ryan Pace has a lot stacked on his desk.

Who is going to be the next head coach that can both take Mitch Trubisky to the stratosphere, and lead a group of men? How can Chicago fix a bare receiving group to help Trubisky? What’s Fangio’s future at coordinator? And of course, what’s going to happen with Fuller, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent in March?

Fuller’s situation this season, in a way, mirrors the Bears’ dealings with Alshon Jeffery last year.

A perceived lack of trust on both sides. A misplay in earlier contract proceedings (the Bears elected to keep franchise tagging Jeffery, while not offering Fuller his fifth-year option following his 2016 no-show). And, two talented players that regardless of whatever earnest effort comes out of Halas Hall to retain them, might leave the Bears and cash out anyway.

In the case of Fuller, though, Pace could be best served to bring back his services. Creating another roster hole while attempting to finish a contender around Trubisky isn’t ideal. Unless the Bears plan on striking gold in the open market on a replacement — which is far from a guarantee — the most sensible move would be to keep Fuller. That’s especially considered with Chicago not having used any sort of tag on him yet, which differentiates his future from Jeffery’s past.

As the Bears look to cap their rebuild and finally climb out of the NFC cellar, another year of evaluation and a “prove-it” season for Fuller almost makes too much sense.

If Fuller can keep up this level of play while playing on a tag (which would pay him like a top-five cornerback for 2018), then the Bears can have every bit of assurance that 2017 wasn’t a flash in a pan contract year push for their young corner. That he indeed is a long-term piece to build around a sustained Chicago powerhouse. Know that in any event they can afford to keep him, and might not be able to afford to lose another youthful contributor.

With that decision soon to be on the horizon, for now, take Fox’s word on Fuller’s master class Christmas Eve performance.

“It’s as good a game by a corner as I’ve seen since I’ve been here …” R.

Find Robert on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.

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