Bears

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

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USA Today

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

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. 

Transition tag

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. 

Bears grades and needs: The clock is ticking on Mitch Trubisky

Bears grades and needs: The clock is ticking on Mitch Trubisky

2018 depth chart

1. Mitch Trubisky
Usage: 14 games, 86.4 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $7,917,933 cap hit

The Bears spent last offseason building the best possible structure around Trubisky, from hiring Matt Nagy to signing Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Chase Daniel to drafting James Daniels and Anthony Miller. There don’t appear to be many more moves to be made now, outside of finding a solution to a lagging running game. 

So that puts the Bears’ necessary offensive growth squarely on Trubisky. His overall 2018 numbers were fine, completing two-thirds of his passes for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 95.4. Those made him roughly an average quarterback league-wide, with his rushing ability (68 carries, 421 yards) a sneaky asset. 

The optimistic view is Trubisky’s 2018 season — his first running Nagy’s offense — built a solid foundation on which he can build. Teammates noted Trubisky’s mastery of the “football 101” concepts by the end of the season, which should allow Nagy to move on to more advanced facets of his scheme. Having a full year of OTAs and training camp to build on that baseline knowledge, likely, will be beneficial for Trubisky and the entire offense. 

“I think it was just good to see the natural growth just in the offensive scheme as he gains more comfort and also more comfort with the players that are around him, that chemistry that developed,” general manager Ryan Pace said last month. “I was just talking to Mitch today about that, just the excitement about going into an offseason with the pieces in place around him and then year two in the same offensive scheme and how much growth can take place. So I just felt like you saw him playing more with his instincts because he was more comfortable in the system.”

The Bears are confident that growth will take place, but the team doesn’t have years upon years for him to develop — it has to be soon. His cap hit of just under $8 million in 2019, followed by about $9.2 million in 2020, means the Bears’ best window to win will be in the next two years. If the Bears pick up Trubisky’s fifth-year option for 2021, he’d likely cost somewhere in the range of $22 million, depending on what various extensions look like for the league’s top quarterbacks over the next two years (Jameis Winston’s fifth-year option for 2019 will cost the Buccaneers $20.922 million). 

The point is this: The Bears only have two years left of a cheap Trubisky before he gets expensive (or, if things go poorly, the Bears have to start over at the position). If Trubisky were to earn a salary around $22 million in 2021, he and Khalil Mack could combine to take up a rough estimate of 20 percent of the team’s salary cap. That doesn’t mean the Bears’ window to win will close after the 2020 season — it’ll stay open as long as Trubisky develops into the player the team thinks he can be. 

“Last year, he was so focused in on what do we do on offense,” Nagy said. “… Now he knows. He knows it all. And now he can take that next step of figuring out, okay, here they come. They have got a saw blitz, cover zero, now I know what to do or I know how to check to (a) protection, all that. That's going to be the big one for him.”

2. Chase Daniel
Usage: 5 games, 13.8 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $6 million cap hit

Daniel deftly quarterbacked the Bears past the Lions on Thanksgiving but was sloppy in an overtime loss to the Giants a week later, leaving him with a 1-1 record in the two games he started in place of Trubisky. Those games, combined with his extensive knowledge of Nagy’s offense and a good relationship with Trubisky, were likely enough to earn him a spot on the 2019 roster. It’s unlikely the Bears could find a better fit in a backup quarterback for less than the $3 million in cap space they’d save by releasing Daniel. 

“That’s why we have Chase,” Nagy said, tellingly, after Daniel led the Bears to that win over the Lions. 

3. Tyler Bray
Usage: 0 games, 0 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Bray fit with the Bears in 2018 as an additional voice with knowledge of Nagy’s offense, having spent an injury-plagued career in Kansas City prior to coming to Chicago. The Bears could look to retain him as a practice squad player and for depth in case of an injury, but perhaps Pace will explore bringing in an undrafted free agent or even a late-round quarterback as a third-stringer. 

2019 level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 2

The only thing that matters is Trubisky’s development in 2019. That’s the Bears’ all-in bet for this year; if Trubisky makes the kind of improvement the Bears need to get back to the playoffs, they’ll be set. If not, serious questions will need to be asked a year from now about if Trubisky truly is worthy of being the Bears’ franchise quarterback of the future. 

Bears scouts keeping a close eye on new Alliance of American Football league

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USA TODAY

Bears scouts keeping a close eye on new Alliance of American Football league

The new Alliance of American Football league is giving fans more of what they love on the weekend, even if it isn’t quite NFL quality on the field.

As you might expect, the Bears are tuning in too, to get another look at some of the talent available that could be headed back to the big league.

“Our pro scouts are all over that,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace told ChicagoBears.com. “We had pro scouts at their training camps that we sent down there. It’s really too early to say how many players are going to come out of there, but we’re going to be looking closely at it like we do every league.”

Pace and his scouts should already be familiar with quite a few players in the AAF who spent at least a little time in Chicago.

Former draft picks Evan Rodriguez and Will Sutton might be the biggest names among the former Bears, but plenty of UDFAs from the past are suiting up again for the next eight weeks.

Wide receiver Rashad Ross was one of the AAF’s leading receivers after the first week, and he spent part of the 2014 season with the Bears.

On the other side of the ball, cornerback De’Vante Bausby had a strong debut, just over two years since leaving Chicago in 2016.

Other top names in the AAF include former third-overall pick Trent Richardson and former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

And of course, Hall of Fame Bears linebacker Mike Singletary is the head coach of the Memphis Express.