Last year this time, Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller was about to start the most important training camp of his pro football career. The former first-round pick was coming off a season where he didn't play a single game because of a mysterious knee injury and was viewed as a potential training camp casualty.
The Bears didn't pick up his fifth-year option and as a result, the 2017 season represented a prove-it year for Fuller. And boy did he ever.
Fuller enjoyed the best season of his career from both a health and production standpoint. He registered 60 tackles and two interceptions en route to becoming the kind of shutdown corner the Bears envisioned when he was selected 14th overall in the 2014 NFL draft. He got paid for his efforts, too.
Ryan Pace rewarded Fuller with a four-year $56 million contract, making him one of the team's biggest cap hits over the next three seasons. To be fair, Fuller's contract was actually offered by the rival Packers and Pace exercised his option to match under the transition tag. Still, it's a contract that Fuller must now continue to earn. One great season is a far cry from a great career.
There's no reason to expect a regression from Fuller, assuming he can stay healthy. The entire starting secondary is returning and should be even better than last year with more comfort and confidence in each other. Fuller can trust safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos to have his back if he takes a chance at an interception. It's not unreasonable to expect Fuller to have an even better year considering he's beginning 2018 with that trust in his teammates already developed.
The Bears need Fuller to take hold of elite status this year. He's just as important to the defense's success as the pass rush is. He has to make Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford think twice about throwing in his direction. He needs to shrink the field.
Fuller isn't that guy yet, but if he blossoms into one of the league's top cover guys, Chicago's defense will challenge for an even better status than the top-10 finish they enjoyed a year ago. Much of his success will rely on the aforementioned pass rush, and one could argue that the Bears haven't exactly set up Fuller for a sensational breakout. But the point remains: For Chicago to soar among the league's top defenses, Fuller has to become one of the NFL's best pure defenders.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.
But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.
“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”
Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.
“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”
Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.
And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.
“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”
The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.
“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”
That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.
But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.
“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.
“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”
It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.
The only thing that was missing? The ball.
Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.
“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.
We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.