Bears general manager Ryan Pace was more than 10 minutes into dissecting his 2017 draft class last April 29 when someone asked if he would decline cornerback Kyle Fuller’s fifth-year option.
“Yes, we are going to,” he said.
There was no follow-up question. What more needed to be said? Fuller had missed the entire 2016 season after a seemingly routine knee procedure in the preseason. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had openly questioned his desire to return. Less than a month into their first season together in 2015, Fangio had compared Fuller’s confidence issues to that of a struggling Tiger Woods. That wasn’t a compliment.
Fuller was a first-round pick in 2014, sure, but he was former GM Phil Emery’s selection, not Pace’s. So when Pace announced that Fuller would become a free agent in 2018, not 2019, no one batted an eye. Picking up Fuller’s option would have fallen somewhere between blind faith and recklessness.
It’s to Fuller’s immense credit, then, that a standout 2017 season has left revisionist historians questioning Pace’s decision.
In retrospect, the Bears’ option would have placed Fuller under contract for $8.526 million in 2018. Instead, they have until 3 p.m. Tuesday to decide whether to give him the franchise tag, which would cost them $14.975 million for one year — and open up a negotiating period, ending in mid-July, to try to reach a long-term deal.
More likely, the Bears will decline to give Fuller the franchise tag and still hope to bring him back. Once free agency begins next week, Fuller and his reps could determine his market value — which figures to be less than $15 million per year — and then, armed with a figure, discuss a return to the Bears. For salary context, cornerback A.J. Bouye got a $13.5 million average annual value from the Jaguars last year, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore got $13 million from the Patriots. The Bears were interested in both.
Asked about Fuller at the NFL Scouting Combine last week, Pace said “the dialogue has been pretty aggressive,” but said the Bears were exploring “different avenues,” too.
In need of two starting corners, the Bears could look at free agents Malcolm Butler. E.J. Gaines and Trumaine Johnson, among others, or bring back Prince Amukamara, who was serviceable on a one-year deal.
They have interest in Denzel Ward, having traveled to the Cotton Bowl to watch the Ohio State cornerback, only for him to decide not to play in order to avoid injury. They met with Ward at the combine, where he ran a 4.32 40-yard dash.
“I would say my speed separates myself from other players,” Ward told reporters in Indianapolis. “Other than speed, my footwork at the line of scrimmage and my ability to be able to mirror receivers and stay in the hip pocket of receivers.”
Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick might be the best of the defensive back class. He played some slot cornerback with the Crimson Tide but is considered a better pro safety. His coverage skills would allow coordinators to be creative in sub packages. Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson, who led the NCAA with eight interceptions last year, is slated to go in the first round, too. Jackson, who primarily played zone coverage and was the full-time starter for only one season, met with the Bears in Indianapolis.
NOTE: Former running back Matt Forte Tweeted he’ll retire as a Bear. He announced his retirement last week after a 10-year career, the first eight with the Bears.
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