Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio saw Kyle Fuller at his best, just not as a coordinator with the Bears.
Fuller looked like the playmaker the Bears needed in just his second NFL game as a rookie against the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in 2014. Fuller’s two dazzling interceptions as a replacement for injured starter Charles Tillman sparked the Bears to a 28-20 upset victory. (Jay Cutler strafed Fangio’s defense for four touchdowns that night, three in the fourth quarter — his 119.2 passer rating was the best against the 49ers to that point in Fangio’s three-plus seasons in San Francisco).
Fuller had another pick the following week in a victory over the Jets and was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month that September. Unfortunately, Fuller rarely has lived up to that fast start — the rest of his rookie season or in 16 starts under Fangio last season. The third-year cornerback from Virginia Tech is emblematic of a transition at Halas Hall — from Phil Emery/Marc Trestman to Ryan Pace/John Fox — that has proved more difficult than expected: Fuller’s a former first-round pick (14th overall in 2014) who was drafted into a Cover-2 zone defense and struggled in the transition to Fangio’s man-to-man scheme. And once he got hurt, it only got worse. Six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic “clean-up” knee surgery, Fuller is out at least eight weeks after the Bears put him on injured reserve. It leaves Fangio and the Bears in a familiar position — getting younger at a position where they already were young.
“There was hope [that he would return quickly from the surgery],” Fangio said Wednesday at Halas Hall, “but as always with those procedures, you never know quite how they’re going to turn out.”
Fangio said he hoped Fuller would be a good fit for his defense when Fangio arrived in 2015. “I didn’t have a preconceived notion [about Fuller] one way or the other,” Fangio said. “Obviously we had hoped he would be our starting right corner, which he was last year for the entire season.”
But it turned out to be a struggle, with Fuller getting benched late in a 48-23 loss to the Cardinals in Week 2 last season. He had his moments, but they were far too infrequent to consider Fuller a part of the foundation in the new regime. The Bears had already lowered expectations this season — hoping Fuller could be more consistent than spectacular. But he never was healthy enough to get the chance to do that.
“He had the injury this year and we hadn’t been able to have him much,” Fangio said. “Early in camp he wasn’t moving well enough to even evaluate, so they did the procedure and he hadn’t fully recovered yet. So hopefull this eight weeks minimum will get him healthy and fully able to play.”
Fangio barely considered a question of whether Fuller will be the starter when he returns. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “We’re game-to-game here right now.”
That’s the least of Fangio’s concerns right now. The Bears are 0-3 and his defense is without better starters than Fuller — linebacker Danny Trevathan, nose tackle Eddie Goldman and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee among them.
Second-year cornerback Jacoby Glenn and rookie Deiondre Hall have shown progress in place of Fuller — though Glenn struggled against the Cowboys on Sunday night and Hall did not play. But it’s far from the biggest hole to fill on this defense.
“[Glenn has] made some good plays on deep balls and down the field,” Fangio said. “We’ve got to get him to play tighter and more aggressive on shorter throws and improve his overall play.”
In that respect, Fuller’s absence will be an interesting barometer for Fangio, John Fox and the Bears’ defense. If we’re pining for Kyler Fuller in eight weeks, it will not be good news. If Fangio and Fox are doing this right, Glenn, Hall and the Bears’ defense will be established enough that the return of Fuller will be a bonus and not a necessity.