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.