Bears

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the cornerbacks

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the cornerbacks

With training camp starting later this month, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ units heading into Bourbonnais. Today’s group: The cornerbacks. 

1. What will two new vets bring to the defense?

When Stephon Gilmore and A.J. Bouye’s price tags skyrocketed, Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper were signed to one- and three-year contracts, respectively, then Tracy Porter was released. Pro Football Focus ranked Cooper 113th out of 120 qualified cornerbacks in coverage last year, though he did pick off four passes. Amukamara had sort of the opposite season of Cooper last year, not intercepting a pass but providing steady coverage. Neither player is likely to be a permanent fix at cornerback, but for a defense with a relatively heavy veteran presence, each fit the Bears’ plans for 2017. 

“(Amukamara)’s just kind of that veteran, savvy consistent pro, and sometimes there is a lot of hidden production from him because he’s got his guy covered and they just don’t throw at him,” general manager Ryan Pace said back in March. “… Cooper is a raw player that I think is still ascending. He didn’t play corner until late in college and when you watch him each year he’s gotten better and better the more he’s gotten opportunities. He has really natural ball skills. It’s very easy for him to make a play on the ball.”
 
2. Can Kyle Fuller hit the reset button in his last shot with the Bears?

Ryan Pace confirmed back in April that the Bears will not pick up the fifth-year option on Fuller, who so far looks like a big swing and a miss by the Phil Emery regime. Fuller missed the entire 2016 season with a knee injury and isn’t a safe bet to be on the Bears’ opening day roster, though defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said back in May he’ll be given an opportunity to be part of a “competition.” Still, the start of the 2014 season — when Fuller had three interceptions in his first three games — is well in the past.

3. Will the Bears regret not dipping into an ostensibly deep draft pool of cornerbacks?

This is a question that won’t be answered for a few years and is partly contingent on the development of both Mitch Trubisky and Adam Shaheen. But it’s an interesting one to consider, given how strong this year’s class of college cornerbacks was (PFF analyzed it as being “the strongest in the past decade”). Eighteen cornerbacks were drafted in the first three rounds, 11 of whom came after the Bears drafted Shaheen with the 45th pick. But Pace stuck to taking the best player available on the Bears’ draft board, which meant snagging four offensive players with the team’s five picks.  

“I think it’d be difficult for us to say, man, we got a man graded this high, but ah man we really need defense, let’s step down here and take this player,” Pace said. “I think we’d regret that decision.”

Three questions for Bears CBs: Will continuity breed success?

kylefullerbears.png
USA TODAY

Three questions for Bears CBs: Will continuity breed success?

Pre-camp depth chart

Outside corner

1. Kyle Fuller
2. Marcus Cooper
3. Michael Joseph
4. Tyrin Holloway

1. Prince Amukamara
2. Sherrick McManis
3. Kevin Toliver II
4. Rashard Fant
5. John Franklin III

Nickel corner

1. Bryce Callahan
2. Cre’Von LeBlanc
3. Jonathon Mincy

1. Can Kyle Fuller build off a 2017 breakout?

A year ago, it would’ve been unbelievable to hear Fuller would be fifth highest-paid cornerback in the NFL by average annual salary, ahead of two guys (A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore) in whom the Bears had interest in free agency. This was a guy who — justifiably, given he missed all of 2016 with an injury — didn’t have his fifth year option picked up and wasn’t even assured of a roster spot coming into training camp.

But Fuller earned that paycheck with an outstanding season. Consider:

No cornerback was targeted more times than Fuller last year, even though only 51 percent of those targets were caught and he led the NFL in passes defended with 17, according to Pro Football Focus. Fuller held opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 69 when they threw his way, good for 17th among all cornerbacks.

“His preparation Is second to none,” fellow cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “How he prepares for games and how he anticipates what’s going on —  I feel like I prepared enough but when I watched him and how he does it before games there’s a lot I can learn from him and I’m just glad he’s back because he’s going to improve my game a little more and hopefully I can help him improve his.”

Why opposing teams targeted Fuller so much when Amukamara allowed a higher quarterback rating (89.1), didn’t have an interception and only broke up five passes is still a head-scratcher of sorts. But if Fuller wasn’t respected last year by opposing offensive coordinators, he will be in 2018.

So the goal for Fuller will be to be even more stifling when the ball is thrown his way. Adding a few more interceptions — he only had two last year, and both came in December — would go a long way toward him earning that four-year, $56 million offer sheet the Bears had to match.

2. Where will the interceptions come from?

The Bears are the only team in NFL history to record eight or fewer interceptions in three consecutive seasons, and Ryan Pace doubled down on an outside cornerback pairing of Fuller and Amukamara that only produced two interceptions in 2017. Nickel corner Bryce Callahan showed a bit of a playmaking streak last year with two interceptions (and a pretty sweet punt return touchdown in Week 1).

But that only accounts for four picks, a number which was equaled or eclipsed by 13 cornerbacks in 2017. All the pressure to get takeaways isn’t on Amukamara, Fuller, Callahan and a handful of reserves — Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos will need to contribute more too — but given the questions surrounding the Bears’ pass rush, increasing the interceptions generated from this unit will be important for the overall success of the defense.

So if you see Fuller or Amukamara pick off Mitch Trubisky in Bourbonnais, perhaps look at it as good thing (it’ll be a learning experience for Trubisky, too, which isn’t a bad thing either).

3. Will any of the intriguing UDFAs make the team?

The Bears, a little surprisingly, didn’t draft a cornerback in April, but did sign a handful of undrafted free agents that will have an opportunity to fight for a roster spot in training camp. Two players in particular will be interesting to watch in July and August: Kevin Toliver II and John Franklin III.

Toliver is a former five-star recruit who didn’t live up to that hype at LSU, only intercepting two passes in 31 career games. The 6-foot-2 Toliver has projectable size and length, but his lack of production was why he went undrafted after leaving Baton Rouge following his junior season. He’s the kind of high-upside guy undrafted free agent who could garner some attention in training camp with a few good practices, but will have to consistently prove to the defensive coaching staff and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor he’s worthy of a roster spot.

Franklin may be more of a long shot, but the former “Last Chance U” star nonetheless will be a fascinating watch in Bourbonnais. The former quarterback-turned-receiver is now trying to not only make an NFL roster, but is trying to do so while learning an entirely different position on the side of the ball on which he’s never played before. Franklin had a healthy perspective on learning how to play cornerback during OTAs and minicamp (https://www.nbcsports.com/chicago/bears/last-chance-u-john-franklin-iii-chicago-bears-nfl-defensive-back-quarterback-wide-receiver), and the Bears saw something in his raw speed and athleticism to give him a shot on defense. It’d be a surprise if Franklin earned a spot on the 53-man roster, but it’d be one heck of a story if he even wound up on the Bears’ practice squad come September.

Allen Robinson appears on latest 'Big Guys in a Benz'

ar15.jpg
USA TODAY

Allen Robinson appears on latest 'Big Guys in a Benz'

New Bears wideout Allen Robinson appears on the latest episode of 'Big Guys in a Benz' hosted by Anthony Adams. In the episode, Robinson touches on a number of topics from growing up rooting for the Minnesota Vikings despite being from Detroit, his favorite Chicago baseball team and how he went about free agency.

When asked where the Bears were ranked when looking at teams in free agency, Robinson said the Bears were No. 1 on his list.

...especially once they hired coach Nagy, you know, I had been watching his work over the past couple of years and I know it's a system that I would definitely fit into and flourish in. 

As far as growing up a Vikings fan?

Bears fans can forgive Robinson as he grew up idolizing Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss. He went on to explain that once a year for his birthday he would get to go see the Vikings play in Detroit. Things came full-circle for Robinson when he was able to train for four weeks straight with Moss last summer, which Robinson said "took his game to the next level". 

When pressed to choose White Sox or Cubs, Robinson quickly responded "Cubs", making his allegiance to the North Siders known. 

And though the interview didn't touch on Robinson's ACL rehab, it did show how Robinson is quickly endearing himself to Bears fans as he prepares for a bounce-back season.