Part 10 of an 11-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.The Bears rewarded their cornerbacks last offseason.
It took some prodding by the Packers, but the Bears gave Kyle Fuller a four-year, $56 million deal in March 2018. Prince Amukamara, who had played for three teams in the three previous seasons, got a three-year, $27 million deal.
Those numbers must have made Bryce Callahan salivate. It didn’t take the Bears long, though, to move on from their nickel cornerback when free agency opened the following March. His asking price was too high, and the Bears couldn’t afford to wait and see if it went down.
“You get a feel for things as free agency’s approaching, especially your own players because you’re communicating with their agents,” general manager Ryan Pace said last month. “So we had an idea of where that thing could potentially head, and we had to be ready.”
They pivoted, quickly, to Jets cornerback Buster Skrine, signing him to a three-year, $16.6 million deal with $8.5 million guaranteed. Combine his salary with that of Fuller and Amukamara, and the Bears are paying $99.6 million — not all guaranteed, of course — to three cornerbacks.
Callahan eventually signed up for a reunion with new Broncos head coach Vic Fangio — for three years, $21 million and $10 million guaranteed.
“Buster is a guy we’ve always liked,” Pace said
The Bears were first interested in Skrine when he hit free agency in 2015. Coach Matt Nagy praised him before the Bears played the Jets in October, calling him “one of the better nickels in the league, if not the best.” After meeting Skrine last month, Nagy called him a “mature professional” who “is going to be all-in with whatever we’re doing.”
To reward the Bears the way Fuller and Amukamara did, though, is a high bar for Skrine to clear.
Playing under defensive backs coach Ed Donatell — who followed Fangio to Denver — Fuller finished last season tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions, earning a first-team all-pro nod and a Pro Bowl berth. Amukamara had his best season, intercepting three passes after totaling only seven in the first seven years of his career.
More importantly, both stayed healthy: Fuller played all 16 games, while Amukamara missed only one game, a Week 4 blowout win against the Buccaneers, with a hamstring injury.
The Bears can’t count on the same injury luck this season.
Sherrick McManis, the team’s veteran special teams ace, filled in ably at nickel cornerback last year, and figures to do so again were Skrine to be injured. The Bears’ other backups are unproven — rookie Kevin Toliver is the only reserve outside cornerback who played last year, and he collected 12.8 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.
There’s room, then, for the Bears to draft and develop a long, rangy cornerback later this month. With a running back need to fill in the third round, the Bears don’t figure to turn to cornerback until the final day of the draft.
Grading the Bears’ need: Medium. The Bears are set as their starting positions, but still need to develop depth on the cheap behind Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who signed contracts wroth a combined $83 million last year. At 5-9, new arrival Buster Skrine will start at slot cornerback but lacks the size to move outside in case of emergency.
On the roster: Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Buster Skrine, Sherrick McManis, Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph, John Franklin III and Jonathon Mincy.
The five best draftees: LSU’s Greedy Williams; Georgia’s DeAndre Baker; Washington’s Byron Murphy; Temple’s Rock-Ya Sin; and Michigan State’s Justin Layne.
Keep an eye on: Where Williams gets drafted. He’s considered the best cornerback on the board, but NFL Network reported last week that he had yet to make a single official visit or conduct a private workout. Is that a great sign, or a bad one?
Close to home: Before he set a Notre Dame record with 39 career pass breakups, Julian Love led Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park to two-straight state championships and was named the 2015 Sun-Times Player of the Year.
How important was Love to the Irish defense? He left this year’s national championship semifinal in the first quarter with the game tied at 3. By the time he returned, Clemson was ahead 23-3.
Love decided to leave school a year early after reportedly receiving a second-ground grade by the NFL’s draft advisory council. At 5-11, 195 pounds, he projects as a pure cover cornerback and is expected to be selected on the draft’s second day.