Free agent focus: Which cornerbacks could Bears potentially team with Kyle Fuller?

Free agent focus: Which cornerbacks could Bears potentially team with Kyle Fuller?

The Bears used the transition tag on Kyle Fuller on Tuesday, meaning they’re locked in to pay him less (by about $2 million) than they would’ve had they used the franchise tag and will have the opportunity to match any offer made to their standout cornerback. 

The risk with the transition tag is the Bears wouldn’t receive compensation if they decided against matching an offer sheet for Fuller, though the expectation is he won’t command a ludicrous deal that the Bears wouldn’t want to match. The transition tag also gives the Bears a longer window to negotiate a long-term deal with Fuller, as opposed to the July 15 cutoff date for franchise tagged players. 

The way the Bears framed their transition tag decision was that it gave them the best chance of working out a long-term deal. It’s worth noting the Bears, most recently, used the franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery after the 2015 season and were unable to come to an agreement on a multi-year deal. 

“Kyle is a player we value," general manager Ryan Pace said. "This allows us to continue to work together on a long-term deal."

It’s not guaranteed that Fuller will return in 2018, but it seems likely. So with that in mind, what are the Bears’ options in free agency to find someone to play opposite Fuller?

Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots

Butler’s bizarre benching during Super Bowl LII cast a pall over his rags-to-riches story that saw him go from being an undrafted free agent to having that game-winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX and making the Pro Bowl a year later. 

Perhaps more important than being relegated to the sidelines while Nick Foles carved up the Patriots last month: Butler had a down year in 2017, picking off two passes and breaking up 10 others. Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ratings ranked Butler as the 42nd best outside cornerback in 2017. 

Still, the market for Butler should have plenty of suitors. Teams signing Butler will be betting that 2017 was an aberration — but will that bear out in the average annual value of his contract and how much guaranteed money is included in it? Assuming the Bears hold on to Fuller, Butler could be a target so long as his market doesn’t get out of control. 

Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams

Johnson is regarded as the best cornerback available in this free-agent class and is likely to command a contract in the realm of the five-year, $65 million (with $40 million guaranteed) deal signed by Stephon Gilmore a year ago. His price might be even higher than that if a bidding war were to take place. 

If the Bears were to get in on Johnson, they could wind up committing upwards of $25 million to two cornerbacks in 2018. Even for a team with gobs of cap space, that’s a lot of cash to pour into one position, especially if the Bears want to pursue a top receiver like Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins or a pricey replacement for Josh Sitton like Andrew Norwell. 

E.J. Gaines, Buffalo Bills

If the Bears want to create some competition between a solid free agent and a high draft pick, Gaines could make a lot of sense. The 26-year-old Missouri alum isn’t necessarily a big-time playmaker — he only picked off one pass and broke up eight others last year — but would be palatable price-wise for his level of play.

Signing Gaines wouldn’t preclude the Bears from drafting a cornerback with one of their first two picks in April’s draft, though if that’s the plan, the Bears likely would need to release Marcus Cooper so they wouldn’t potentially be sinking $10 million or more into their backup cornerbacks.

Bashaud Breeland, Washington

Breeland sort of had a similar 2017 from a playmaking standpoint to Fuller with a low interception total (one) and a high number of breakups (18). He might be better-served as a No. 2 cornerback, or at least as part of an equal tandem.

But after playing with Josh Norman in Washington, does Breeland want to be merely “a guy” instead of finding somewhere he can be “the guy?” The Bears wouldn’t be able to offer him the latter, so long as Fuller’s back. If some team swoops in and offers Fuller an exorbitant amount of money, though, Breeland would make a lot of sense to replace him. 

Patrick Robinson, Philadelphia Eagles

Robinson picked off four passes last year for the Super Bowl champs and was a first round draft pick of New Orleans in 2010, when Pace was still in the Saints’ front office. That clear connection makes Robinson a likely target of the Bears, and while he’s coming off a solid season for the Eagles, he won’t cost as much as the likes of Johnson, Butler and Breeland in the open market. 

Robinson will turn 31 just before the 2018 season opener and will likely want a multi-year deal after a one-year prove-it deal worth $1 million in 2017. The Bears paid Prince Amukamara $7 million for one year in 2017; Robinson could cost around that much in annual value over multiple years.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will Cam Meredith return to the Bears?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will Cam Meredith return to the Bears?

Hub Arkush (Pro Football Weekly/670 The Score), Mark Grote (670 The Score) and Mark Carman (WGN Radio) join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel. Quenton Nelson works out at Notre Dame’s pro day. If he’s still on the board at 8, should the Bears take him? Plus the panel talks about the Cubs outfield heading into 2018 and if it’s time to shut down both Jonathan Toews and Lauri Markkanen.

Could Quenton Nelson increase his value by playing tackle?

USA Today

Could Quenton Nelson increase his value by playing tackle?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Quenton Nelson hasn’t met with the Bears yet during this pre-draft process, and doesn’t have a local visit scheduled with them. But maybe that’s not too surprising.

Harry Hiestand has better intel on him than anyone else after coaching him for the past four years at Notre Dame, after all. 

“Coach Hiestand, he’s known me since I was an immature freshman that wasn’t good at football, until now being a lot more mature and responsible and doing the right thing and a good football player,” Nelson said. “He knows everything about me.”

Could part of that intel provided by Hiestand be that Nelson has the ability to eventually play tackle?

Nelson might be the closest to a “sure thing” prospect in this year’s draft, with his reams of dominant film and off-the-charts work ethic projecting him as an All-Pro for years to come. But that he plays guard is a stumbling block, given interior positions generally don’t hold as much value as tackles in the NFL.

So here’s a potential scenario for the Bears: They draft Nelson at No. 8 — which is still "high" for a guard — and plug him at left guard in 2018. They then, under the careful watch of Hiestand, slide him to tackle in 2019. 

“I’m pretty convinced that Q could do whatever he sets his mind to,” Mike McGlinchey, a first-round tackle in his own right who's Nelson’s ex-Irish teammate and workout buddy, said. “If that’s what teams want him to play, I’m sure he’ll take that head on and perform to the best of his ability.” 

Nelson, to his credit, is confident he could make the switch to tackle (he was recruited by Hiestand as a tackle, and began his college career backing up Zack Martin at tackle). He said the only team that’s asked him about it so far is the Cincinnati Bengals, though it’s unlikely he’ll still be on the board when they pick at No. 21. 

But maybe the thought of guards being significantly less valuable than tackles is slowly becoming antiquated in today’s NFL. Four of the top 10 highest paid offensive linemen, by total contract value, are interior linemen. Three of the top 10 offensive linemen with the most guaranteed money are guards, led by Andrew Norwell, who inked a five-year, $66.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this month with $30 million guaranteed at signing. Only one offensive lineman — Nate Solder, who just signed with the New York Giants — is guaranteed more money. 

Following the money, if teams are willing to splash down loads of cash for the best guards in the league, a team may be willing to spend a top-10 pick on a guard who could immediately be among the best at his position in the NFL. Or the calculation for whatever team drafts him may be this: Would you rather have him as a perennial All-Pro guard or "merely" a solid-to-good tackle? 

Regardless of where he ends up playing, though, Nelson is one of those supremely-talented players who takes the right approach to his craft — in other words, one of those guys you just want to get in your building. And while Nelson said he’d love to play for his hometown New York Giants — who could be interested in him with the No. 2 pick — he said getting to link back up with Hiestand would be an incredible opportunity, too. 

“That would be amazing to play for him,” Nelson said. “He’s the one that made me into the player I am today. I wouldn’t be here without him or be in any conversations in the draft without him, so it would mean a lot to play for him again.”