We didn’t need a reminder, at this point, but we got one Saturday night anyway, when Kyle Fuller gave up a 45-yard post pass and was called for taunting: it’s time to tamp down the expectations for the Bears cornerback.
His preseason struggles — against Alshon Jeffery and the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton and others —might not be a harbinger of struggle this season. But let them be, at least, a reality check.
Shutdown corner? Slow down.
Bears coach John Fox, for one, has shied from that notion when asked about Fuller.
He loves his skills and work ethic, but stresses that lock-down corners are rare in the league. His job, as a coach, is to not leave him on the island. That’s Revis Territory, at least for now.
Fuller said Saturday night he’s looking forward to facing other receivers beside the Bears’ injured Jeffery and the speedy Hilton—who he said drew the taunting penalty by his reaction Saturday — before the season begins. He needs the work.
“We got Eddie (Royal), (Josh Bellamy)—even the guys that we’ll continue to face in the next two preseason games to get some work like that,” he said. “So all the work you can get helps you out.”
In fans’ eyes, Fuller carries the weight of a first-round selection and someone tasked with turning around a defense that posted its worst numbers ever the last two seasons. But Fuller’s not a finished product yet.
Look to history, and it’s clear: just being an above-average player would be an accomplishment in only his second season.
From 2010-13, there were 15 cornerbacks drafted in the first round. Of those, one-third graded out as better than average in their sophomore seasons.
Per Pro Football Focus, only five players graded out in the top half of cornerbacks who played in at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps. Joe Haden and Patrick Robinson did it in 2011, Patrick Peterson in 2012 and Desmond Trufant and Xavier Rhodes in 2014.
Using the same scoring system, Pro Football Focus ranked Fuller second-to-last among the 70 cornerbacks who played half their team’s snaps last year. As of Sunday evening, PFF ranked him 260th out of 263 cornerbacks to appear in a game this preseason.
He’s better than that, of course—Fuller led all rookies with four interceptions and three forced fumbles last year —and should fit Vic Fangio’s more aggressive coverage scheme.
“They’re going to have to play some one-on-one coverage sometimes, and they’ve got to be able to stand up and handle the hard downs,” Fangio said during training camp in Bourbonnais. “Hopefully, we think, but hopefully we’re right, that we think he can do that.”
The Bears have surrounded the 6-foot, 194-pounder with veterans, bringing in cornerbacks Alan Ball and Tracy Porter to mentor him, as well as safety Antrel Rolle.
It’s a good fit for Fuller, who, as the third of four brothers, is used to having a give-and-take relationship with older siblings.
Fuller has been impressed with what the veterans have been able to share.
“Those are the guys you’re out on the field with and have gone through what you’re gone through,” Fuller said. “They help you out a lot.”
Where the veterans will play is still weeks from being decided. After a down season, Tim Jennings could stay outside on nickel packages or move to the slot, which was the plan last season before Charles Tillman got hurt.
Fuller is expected to be the steadying force. Defensive backs coach Ed Donatell said earlier this month that Fuller can “learn anything we put out there,” but wouldn’t say who Fuller reminded him of.
He didn’t want to put pressure on him.
“Time will tell,” Donatell said, “what kind of player this guy’s gonna be.”