When the Bears eyed potential free-agent signings in the secondary for a defense run by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 2015, Buster Skrine stood out after he made four interceptions for the Browns in the previous season.
Skrine, though, was in demand and opted to sign a four-year, $25 million contract with the Jets. The Bears added veteran cornerbacks Alan Ball and Tracy Porter with a pair of one-year deals.
“Buster is a guy we’ve always liked,” general manager Ryan Pace said during the NFL’s annual meetings. “It’s a guy that our scouts liked independently, we liked independently and then our coaches really admired him when we were preparing to play him.”
It’s why the Bears view Skrine as more than a serviceable — and affordable — replacement for Bryce Callahan as their slot cornerback.
Understanding that a long-term agreement might not come to fruition with Callahan in free agency, Skrine was at the top of their list for replacements.
“With free agency, you’ve just got to be ready for anything,” Pace said. “You get a feel for things as free agency’s approaching, especially your own players because you’re communicating with their agents. So we had an idea of where [Callahan’s negotiations] could potentially head, and we had to be ready.”
In this case, the Bears didn’t want to wait for Callahan’s situation to play out. The Bears and Skrine quickly agreed on a three-year, $16.5 million contract when the league’s negotiating window opened on March 11. Four days later, Callahan signed a three-year, $21 million deal with Fangio and the Broncos.
“We just acted quickly to ensure that we addressed the nickel position,” Pace said. “We’re happy that Buster’s here.”
Coach Matt Nagy feels the same way. Before the Bears played the Jets in Week 8 of last season, Nagy described Skrine as “one of the better nickels in this league, if not the best.” During the coaches breakfast at the league meetings, Nagy also mentioned Skrine’s time with the Browns when he was primarily a cornerback.
“He’s one of those guys where he’s always around the football,” Nagy said. “He’s feisty. He’ll stick his nose in there on a nickel slot blitz. He’ll go in there and take your legs out. He plays the game hard, and he’s not a big guy. He’s not big at all, but he plays hard. I always thought he was just kind of sticky.”
In Nagy’s opinion, that was the case when quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw a four-yard touchdown pass to receiver Anthony Miller in the back of the end zone during the Bears’ 24-10 victory against the Jets. Skrine was in coverage against Miller, and it took a perfect throw to beat him.
“Mitchell and Anthony Miller, they just made a play,” Nagy said. “That touchdown to Anthony Miller — [on his] back hip— he just made a great play. He was covered. Buster did a great job, but they just made a better play.
“But I’ve always appreciated [Skrine], and him coming in and talking to him when he was in the building, you see he’s a mature professional. He’s going to be all-in with what we’re doing.”