The Bears giving Kyle Fuller a hug in the form of a we-want-you-back transition tag represents an interesting chapter in their relationship with their pick at No. 14 of the 2014 draft.
This time a year ago, the Bears were on a course that would involve lavishing $7 million for one year on Prince Amukamara, and $8 million guaranteed in a three-year pact with Marcus Cooper. Fuller wasn’t drafted by the Ryan Pace regime, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had publicly cast aspersions on Fuller’s resolve after the cornerback remained out late in the season after seemingly minor knee surgery in August. Throwing Fuller under the bus did not sit well at all in a locker room conditioned to keeping issues in-house, let alone with Fuller himself.
Since the end of 2017, Fangio has been retained under new coach Matt Nagy, and he has reached out to Fuller for some golf and presumably a bit of relationship-building. The Bears engaging in contract talks described by GM Ryan Pace as “aggressive” reinforced the positive message. Best guess at this point is that, with the help of the market either producing an offer or validating the Bears’ offer with its silence, Fuller will be a starting Bears cornerback for several more seasons.
The result of the tag is difficult to predict conclusively. Teams may be reluctant to fashion a multi-year package for Fuller, reasoning that they will effectively just be doing the Bears’ work for them, the presumption being that the Bears will just match the offer.
Collective bargaining talks in 2011 eliminated flagrant “poison pills” in contract offers but opposing teams are free to structure contracts with front- or back-loading intended to put the player’s current team in a salary-cap bind. The Bears, however, have managed their cap superbly under Pace and are among the teams with the greatest cap space with which to make or match offers.
A tag not without risk
The Bears have had good and bad experience with the transition tag. They landed Andy Heck when the Seattle Seahawks passed on matching the Bears’ offer to the left tackle in 1994. They’d placed transition tags on defensive backs Mark Carrier and Donnell Woolford the year before and kept both with multi-year deals.
But letting the market set the value of one’s own players can blow up, sometimes painfully. The Bears were deep in negotiations with Alonzo Spellman in 1996 but refused to budge to the $2 million-per-year mark. The Jacksonville Jaguars then tendered a four-year deal worth $12 million, 50 percent more than the Bears’ line in the sand. The Bears then mysteriously matched the Jacksonville package, which included a $100,000 annual donation to Spellman’s foundation that the Bears unsuccessfully challenged.
Late in 1995, with tackle James “Big Cat” Williams in search of a new deal in the range of $2 million per season. A Bears executive scoffed, “James Williams, a $2-million tackle?! Oh, please.” He was right; the Bears let Williams hit the market, the Oakland Raiders came after him with an offer the Bears countered, and which revealed that James Williams in fact was a $2.9-million tackle.
With their transition tag, the Bears are telling Fuller that they think he’s worth $12.971 million a year, at least for the 2018 year. That the two sides didn’t get a deal done already at that level – A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore set the cornerback market last offseason at $13.5 million per season – suggests that the increase of the salary cap to $177.2 million from $167 million has predictably bumped expectations (and demands) upward.
That no deal got done with “aggressive” negotiating says that the Bears may be saying Fuller isn’t a $13.5-million cornerback. What they’re hoping they don’t find out, in the Big Cat tradition, is that Fuller in fact isn’t a $13.5-million cornerback, that he’s a $15-million cornerback.
The Bears last year lost free agents over demands for massive guarantees rooted in coaching and quarterback uncertainties. They may still be looking at high guarantee demands but took their first step on Tuesday to keeping one of their own.
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