Four key tagging decisions bring free agency into focus for Bears

Four key tagging decisions bring free agency into focus for Bears

The NFL’s deadline for teams to place the franchise tag on players passed Tuesday afternoon, with the Bears deciding against using it — and the near $15 million salary that comes with it — on cornerback Kyle Fuller. But they will use the transition tag, which costs less than the franchise tag at $12.971 million.

The transition tag allows the Bears to match any offers a team makes to Fuller, but if they decline to match it, they will not receive compensation. That's the risk of the transition tag; the benefit is it costs less and affords the Bears more time to negotiate a long-term deal (the deadline for franchise tagged players to sign a long-term extension is July 15). 

This isn’t like the Alshon Jeffery situation last year, when the Bears declined to use the franchise tag and lost him to the Philadelphia Eagles (the transition tag was not used on Jeffery). Jeffery picked a team with more coaching and quarterback stability (and upside) in the Eagles over a Bears team that was about to sign Mike Glennon and was a month and a half away from drafting Mitch Trubisky. 

Fuller’s situation is much more stable in Chicago, with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell returning for their fourth seasons with the Bears. It’d make sense if Fuller ultimately wanted to continue playing for the same coaching staff under which he enjoyed a breakout 2017 season, one which improved his stock from possible being a training camp cut to being due for a big payday. 

But since Fuller’s made it this far without being agreeing to a multi-year deal with the Bears, there’s little risk for him in testing the free agent market to see what his value is. The Bears know that, but still wanted to keep him without guaranteeing him more money in 2018 than he may get on the open market. 

“I would say cornerback this year in free agency and the draft is a good position,” general manager Ryan Pace said last week, “so that’s beneficial to us.”

Maybe that was Pace sort of winking at Fuller’s representation that, hey, the market you’re expecting may not be the market that develops given it’s flooded with top-end guys like Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler and Bashaud Breeland, not to mention a draft class headlined by Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson. The transition tag bears that out: The Bears want to keep Fuller, and it allows him to test free agency to figure out his market while allowing Pace to match any offers that come his way. The tag makes sense a lot of sense for the Bears, and probably does for Fuller, too. 

“I can definitely see myself back here,” Fuller said back on New Year’s Day. “I was drafted here. I like it here. But it’s my first time ever in free agency. I have to talk to my agents, my family and just see how that stuff works out. We’ll see. I understand it’s a business. So I’ll be looking forward to whatever it brings.”

Beyond Fuller, there were three other players who didn’t receive the franchise tag on Tuesday for whom the Bears could be in the market:

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson

Initially, the thought was the Jaguars would do whatever they could to hang on to Robinson, especially after they signed Blake Bortles to a contract extension last month. But the Jaguars and the playmaking wideout have drifted apart in negotiations over the last week, and the team decided against spending $15.98 million on a guy coming off a torn ACL. 

When healthy, Robinson is one of the best receivers in football, catching 153 passes for 2,283 yards with 20 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016. He’ll have plenty of suitors and command a hefty payday with plenty of guaranteed money. Will that scare off the Bears, given their best wide receiver — Cameron Meredith — is similarly coming off a torn ACL? Or will Pace roll the dice and try to hit it big in finding a No. 1 target for Trubisky? The Bears’ level if interest here will be fascinating to watch develop. 

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Sammy Watkins

The Rams were reportedly going back and forth on using the franchise tag on Watkins or safety Lamarcus Joyner, and ultimately decided to use it on Joyner. Watkins will have plenty of interest in the open market after averaging 15.2 yards per reception and hauling in eight touchdowns in 2017, though he only caught 39 passes for 593 yards as part of that explosive Rams’ offense. 

Watkins, like Fuller, could opt to stay in Los Angeles with the thought it’s the best place for him to further his career. But expect the receiver-starved Bears to make a push for Watkins, too, hoping to sell him on their own combination of a young, offensive-minded head coach and a developing franchise quarterback. 

Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell 

Norwell would’ve been due a little over $14 million had he been tagged (the expectation in Carolina is he won't be). That’s money usually reserved for tackles, not guards, though the 26-year-old Norwell is one of the best interior linemen in the league and hasn’t missed a game since the 2015 season. 

Norwell could command around or more than $30 million in guaranteed money in the open market, which could be more than the Bears want to spend after releasing Josh Sitton and saving $8 million in cap room. But Norwell’s age and talent, coupled with the Bears’ healthy cap situation, does represent the team’s best chance to upgrade over Sitton at guard. Going with a cheaper free agent, or drafting a guard — whether it’s Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson or a later-round guy — is certainly an option here as well. 

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Who should the Bears sign, Allen Hurns or Cam Meredith?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Who should the Bears sign, Allen Hurns or Cam Meredith?

On this episode of SportsTalk Live, Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times), Chris Emma (670 The Score) and Ben Finfer join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel.

Allen Robinson’s former Jaguars teammate is a free agent. Would signing Allen Hurns make sense for the Bears?

Plus, Loyola has traffic problems on the Road to the Final Four and the guys debate the biggest need for the Blackhawks heading into a long offseason.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Kyle Fuller believes he's a Top 5 cornerback in the NFL

USA Today

Kyle Fuller believes he's a Top 5 cornerback in the NFL

Kyle Fuller caused a bit of a panic late Friday afternoon when a report dropped that he signed an offer sheet with the Green Bay Packers. For a few hours, the prospect — even if it was always unlikely — of the Bears losing their best cornerback to their arch rivals to the north loomed over Chicago. 

For Fuller, though, he said he barely had time to think about the possibility of cashing in on his breakout 2017 season with the Packers. The Bears quickly matched the offer sheet, officially announcing the four-year deal Tuesday that makes Fuller one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. 

“It was crazy not really knowing what to expect,” Fuller said. “I would have never expected it. But when (the Packers’ offer sheet) came, it was definitely something to consider, just on the business side of it. At the end of the day, how it all played out, I’m definitely happy.”

Fuller sounded like someone who took a more passive role to his quasi-restricted free agency that was set about when the Bears placed the transition tag on him, allowing them to match any offer sheet that he were to sign. Fuller said he didn’t know all the details of what was going on with offer sheets coming in and negotiations with the Bears.

“I kinda was just getting the information from (my agents) and going with the flow of everything and knowing that at the end of the day it would end up working out,” Fuller said. 

The $14 million average annual value of Fuller’s contract ranks fifth among cornerbacks, behind only Washington’s Josh Norman ($15 million), New York’s Trumaine Johnson ($14.5 million) Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes ($14.02 million) and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson ($14.01 million), according to Spotrac. 

Fuller said he considers himself a top-five cornerback in the league, and he played like someone who could wind up in that discussion in 2017. The 2014 first-round pick was one of four players to break up 20 or more passes last year, and he picked off two passes in December while providing excellent support against the run. 

“We could not be happier to have Kyle under contract for four more years,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “We feel he is an ascending player on our top 10 defense and we look forward to him having many more productive seasons here in Chicago.”