The Bears need long-term solutions at cornerback, and have one of the NFL’s most reliable players at that position in 2017 about to hit free agency. But that doesn’t mean Ryan Pace has an easy decision on his hands when it comes to applying the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller.
Fuller was one of four players with at least 20 passes defended (breakups plus interceptions) in 2017, and also played well in run support. For a guy who not only had his fifth-year option declined last April, but had to play his way onto the Bears’ 53-man roster in training camp, it was an impressive year that should set Fuller up for a sizable payday.
“(I’m) very proud of Kyle Fuller,” Pace said last month. “He went through some adversity the last couple of years and how he responded this year, his ball production was outstanding. A lot of PBUs. His preparation was outstanding. I think you can tell when a corner is prepared to play. And he can anticipate routes and things of that nature. Just a very professional approach. Very even-keeled approach. I think it started really with the way he attacked the offseason. And he had a good season because of that.”
That adversity Pace alluded to is another factor in the Fuller decision — was he a one-year wonder in 2017, and will the injuries and inconsistencies that plagued him from 2014-2016 return?
The injuries are harder to predict, though it’s worth noting Fuller re-gained the trust of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 2017 after sitting out the entire 2016 season due to a knee issue. The inconsistencies, logically, shouldn’t return as long as Fuller remains as dedicated to film study and preparation in 2018 and beyond.
“(It was) definitely a different kind of season,” Fuller said on locker cleanout day in January. “Definitely feel good about what I was able to do. You always feel like you could do better.”
Fangio, importantly, consistently praised Fuller's play last season — and Fangio rarely entertains empty platitudes in his media sessions.
"I think he’s come back with purpose," Fangio said in December. "He’s been very mature the whole year with his work ethic and habits and I think he had a mindset to go out and play better than he had in ’15 because you can’t compare it to ’16 and I think he’s achieved that. I just think he’s in a better frame of mind, more competitive. He knows what he wants and he’s got it narrowed down.”
If Fuller’s ceiling is higher than what he did in 2017 — he dropped a handful of interceptions, which stands as an easily-identifiable area of improvement - then perhaps he’d be a bargain with whatever contract he gets.
But for now, we’re going to focus on the franchise tag. The Bears have the following options:
— Place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would allow other teams to sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Bears would have the ability match the offer. If they didn’t, they’d be entitled to receiving two first-round draft picks from the team that signed Fuller.
— Place the exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would prohibit Fuller’s representation from seeking offers from other teams, and lock Fuller in to playing for the Bears in 2018 unless the tag were rescinded for some unexpected reason.
— Place the transition tag on Fuller. This would allow the Bears to match any offer sheet signed by Fuller, but they wouldn’t be entitled to compensation if they don’t match it.
— Decline to tag Fuller. This would mean he’d hit the open market once the league’s legal tampering period begins March 12 and free agency officially opens March 14.
Let’s evaluate these options:
Non-exclusive franchise tag
The dance here would be if Fuller would quickly sign the one-year tag and begin negotiating a long-term deal — the two parties would have until July 16 to do so — or if he’d wait things out until the spring or summer to sign it. The Bears are in a healthy position salary cap-wise, so Fuller wouldn’t necessarily gain leverage by signing the one-year tender to guarantee him somewhere around $15 million (the NFL hasn’t released its official franchise tag figures yet, and won’t do so until sometime in early-to-mid-March. The Bears could afford to pay Fuller that one-year salary and still seek another top-level free agent, as well as other signings.
It’s unlikely any team would be willing to part with a pair of first-round picks for Fuller, so effectively, this would be an exclusive tag.
The calculation for Pace is this: Is Fuller really worth somewhere in the range of $15 million? That salary would make him the highest-paid player on the Bears, on an annual average salary basis, ahead of Akiem Hicks ($12 million annually), Kyle Long ($10 million), Charles Leno ($9.25 million), Pernell McPhee ($7.75 million, though he could be cut) and Mitchell Trubisky ($7.258 million — and this doesn’t include Mike Glennon, who all but certainly will be cut).
In a multi-year deal, Fuller wouldn’t get an average annual value of $15 million — not when A.J. Bouye ($13.5 million) and Stephon Gilmore ($13 million) got less in free agency last year. Spotrac provided the following “market value” estimates for fellow 2018 free agent cornerbacks: $13 million annually for Malcolm Butler, $11 million for Trumaine Johnson, $9.3 million for E.J. Gaines and $6.9 million for Bashaud Breeland. How accurate those numbers are depends on your evaluation of each player — but for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings have Fuller (No. 10 corner) as the highest-rated player of that bunch.
If the Bears couldn’t work out a long-term deal with Fuller, he’d play out 2018 on the franchise tag, leading to Pace facing the same decision — albeit at a higher salary — at this time in 2019.
Exclusive franchise tag
Fuller may be a good player, but he’s not *so* good that the Bears would want to place the exclusive tag on him. Some team may be willing to give up two first-round picks to sign Le’Veon Bell, but almost certainly not Fuller.
If the Bears were to place this on Fuller, it would cost them less money in 2018 (it pays the average of the top 10 salaries at a position, instead of top five for the franchise tag) but wouldn’t entitle the Bears to compensation if they declined to match an offer sheet for Fuller. It seems unlikely the Bears would use this, given the defensive coaching staff and front office remain in place and have a strong and thorough evaluation of Fuller. Essentially: The Bears should know by March 6 at the latest if they're in or out on Fuller. If the Bears are going to risk losing Fuller to get him at a lower price, they’ll more likely…
Decline to place the tag
This would mean Fuller would be risked losing to the open market. Butler, Johnson, Gaines and Breeland comprise a solid crop of free agent corners, but that may not prevent Fuller from landing one of the three biggest contracts at his position. If the Bears went this route, they’d likely still try to re-sign Fuller while also putting forth competitive offers (as they did last year for Bouye and Gilmore) for Butler and/or Johnson.
Letting Fuller hit unfettered free agency could mean the Bears are confident in their ability to sign at least one top cornerback, though that’s a dangerous game to play after Bouye turned down more money from them to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago. But perhaps Pace feels more confident this year in his team’s ability to lure top free agents, thanks to consistency in a well-respected defensive staff, a young and energetic head coach, a hopeful franchise quarterback in place and significant improvements to Halas Hall in the works.
Pace has two weeks to make his call; expect him to use up most of that time to calculate the decision on Fuller. The Bears could opt to go a route that keeps Fuller in Chicago, then re-sign Prince Amukamara (who’s an unrestricted free agent) and Bryce Callahan (who’s a restricted free agent) and keep the top of their cornerback depth chart steady, and then draft a cornerback — either a top one, like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, or a more developmental one in the middle rounds. Or the Bears could blow up the depth chart, letting Fuller and Amukamara walk and looking to sign and draft players to fill out the position.
But the decision on Fuller is the first step. What it is will start to bring the Bears’ offseason into focus.