Kevin White did a lot of watching last year.
When he finally got on the Bears’ practice field this spring after spending last season recovering from shin surgery, the receiver noticed something different in Kyle Fuller.
“Definitely a lot more physical this year,” he said. “Footwork is better. He’s a lot more hands-on this year, compared to last year — he was just kinda mirroring.
“He’s literally hands-on, yeah. A little bit tougher.”
Fuller is picking the right time to be. The cornerback has one more season to justify the Bears picking up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract; their deadline is next April, before his fourth season begins.
They seem likely to. But whether Fuller develops into the lockdown corner the Phil Emery’s regime imagined when the Bears selected him 14th in 2014 is another question altogether.
One reason for skepticism: the Bears gave Tracy Porter a $12 million, three-year deal this offseason to, once again, cover the best opposing wide receiver. The 29-year-old stood shined in that role during 14 games last season, but carries with him an injury risk that makes his reliability a constant concern.
Enter Fuller, who embraced this past offseason in hopes of better understanding Vic Fangio’s defense. He worked on technique and fundamentals and, he said, getting to better know the scheme’s finer points.
“Just reps in the classroom,” he said. “This offseason was a really good time to get a head start.”
He got off to a poor one last season, and was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 2 against the Cardinals. Fangio questioned his preparation — and his confidence — though he and coach John Fox said both improved later in the season.
GM Ryan Pace has faith Fuller will be better this time around, crediting, among other things, the influence of Porter.
“I feel like Kyle’s a guy that got more comfortable in the defense and got more confidence,” he said during the owner’s meetings. “So we feel like he’s still an ascending player who’ll be better in Year 2 in this defense.”
Physically, Fuller has been limited during offseason practices by what Fox characterized Wednesday as “precautionary things.”
“But he’s working hard at it,” Fox said, “and I expect him to definitely improve.”
Fuller thinks the defense can get better, too. He said he and his teammates were “gelling and growing in the defense together” during organized team activities and this week’s mandatory minicamp.
“We’ve got a lot of good key additions, and I’m really just looking forward to it,” said Fuller, whose brother Kendall was drafted in the third round by the Redskins in April. “We’re taking steps out here.”
The Bears’ biggest flaw in a season full of them was their inability to force turnovers. While their nine fumble recoveries were tied for 15th in the league, only the Ravens had fewer interceptions than the Bears’ eight.
Fuller said they took it personally.
“That’s every defensive backfield,” said Fuller, who had two interceptions last year. “That’s their job out there, to get turnovers.”
An influx of talent, and a greater understanding of the defense, will allow Fangio to be more aggressive in his playcalling. Fuller said he’s embracing the Bears’ latest class of defensive backs, including cornerback Deiondre’ Hall, who has drawn comparisons to Charles Tillman. Hall returned a Northern Iowa-record four interceptions for touchdowns in his college career.
Fuller hopes to lead them by example — and with knowledge he gained in the offseason.
“Just showing them how to do it — what to expect,” Fuller said. “Just being around, they’ll see how to do things. You’ll always be able to help them out, and they’ll always have questions.
“So it’s really just being there, sharing your experience. As far as the defense, helping them learn it how you learned it.”