Kyle Fuller

Bears grades and needs: Critical decisions loom on free agents Adrian Amos, Bryce Callahan

Bears grades and needs: Critical decisions loom on free agents Adrian Amos, Bryce Callahan

2018 Depth Chart

CORNERBACK

1. Kyle Fuller
Usage: 16 games, 96.3 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $13.5 million cap hit

Fuller led the NFL with seven interceptions and was one of the best cornerbacks in the league in 2018, rewarding the Bears for matching the Packers’ four-year, $56 million offer sheet. His durability and work ethic stood out, too — this is a guy who watched film at dinners with teammates, after all.

Fuller isn’t cheap moving forward — his 2019 cap hit is only exceeded by Khalil Mack and Allen Robinson — but he’s proven to be worth that figure over the last two years. 

2. Prince Amukamara
Usage: 15 games, 86.5 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $9.5 million cap hit

Amukamara ended his three-year interception drought with a pick-six in Week 2, and had two other interceptions with six pass break-ups in one of the better seasons of his eight-year career. His contract is structured to allow the Bears an easy out after 2019, with $9 million in cap savings and only $1 million in dead cap, per Spotrac, though that's a little ways off. He’ll be back this year as a stable, productive, physical presence opposite Fuller. 

3. Bryce Callahan 
Usage: 13 games, 64.2 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

That Callahan missed the season’s final three and a half games and still played nearly two-thirds of the Bears’ defensive snaps speaks to how important a nickel corner is for a team’s defense. Callahan, too, had a productive, box score-stuffing season: Two interceptions, five pass break-ups, two sacks and 13 total pressures. This all while playing solid coverage before a foot injury ended his season in Week 14. 

Callahan, though, has had injury issues in the past, which could give the Bears some pause about retaining him on a multi-year contract. The Baltimore Ravens signed slot corner Tavon Young to a three-year, $25.8 million contract with $13 million guaranteed, per OverTheCap.com, which could be a decent barometer for what it’ll take to sign Callahan. 

The Bears do have the cap room to sign Callahan to a similar deal. Doing so would likely mean they likely couldn’t also retain safety Adrian Amos (more on him later), but it’s hard to have a truly complete defense without solid play from a slot corner. That’s exactly what Callahan provides, provided he’s healthy. 

4. Sherrick McManis
Usage: 15 games, 22.4 percent of defensive snaps, 59.1 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1,987,500 cap hit

McManis acquitted himself well in place of Callahan, which represented his first significant snaps on defense since 2015. Still, he could be better served as a core special teamer and solid backup rather than a full-time starter, though if the Bears move on from Callahan he’d be in line to compete for a starting gig in 2019 with a cheaper veteran and/or draft pick. 

5. Kevin Toliver II
Usage: 15 games, 12.8 percent of defensive snaps, 26.4 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $575,000 cap hit

The Bears saw enough in Toliver during training camp to keep him around for the regular season, but he’ll likely face competition to keep his backup job. He has good length and is a former five-star recruit, so there’s some potential to be molded there. 

6. Marcus Williams 
Usage: 3 games, 1.1 percent of defensive snaps, 4 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Williams was signed after Callahan’s injury as a backup to McManis. He didn’t play much, though is only a few years removed from having six interceptions for the New York Jets in 2015. 

7. Jonathon Mincy
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

The former CFL player hung around the Bears’ practice squad last year after making the jump from the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. The former Auburn Tiger could compete for a job as a slot corner if Callahan departs. 

8. Michael Joseph
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Joseph is a neat story: He’s an Oswego alum who barely played in high school, yet kept plugging away at Division-III Dubuque and was able to stick on the Bears’ practice squad last year. He’ll be back to compete to turn heads of a new defensive coaching staff in 2019. 

9. John Franklin III
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Speaking of neat stories, Franklin — the “Last Chance U” alum — only began playing cornerback last spring. He was waived on cut-down day and didn’t return to the practice squad until Sept. 26…then was released later that day. He was brought back to the practice squad on Nov. 24 and the Bears thought enough of him to keep him around on a reserve/future deal. He’s fast and athletic, but whether he can learn how to play cornerback quick enough will determine how long his football career continues. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 9

If the Bears do retain Callahan, this need will significantly lessen. But Ryan Pace needs to make sure the Bears have slot corner locked down, perhaps more than he does the safety position opposite Eddie Jackson. Bringing in some competition at outside corner behind Fuller and Amukamara — perhaps through the draft — would be beneficial, too. 

SAFETY

1. Eddie Jackson
Usage: 14 games, 86 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: $811,449 cap hit

Jackson was one of the best safeties in the NFL in 2018, combining his rangy ballhawking skills with a deep knowledge of Vic Fangio’s scheme to pick off six passes and score three touchdowns. He grew as a leader, too, the kind of guy the Bears can envision on the back end of their defense for years to come. 

If Jackson’s All-Pro trajectory continues in 2019, he’ll be due for a hefty payday in 2020. He’s the kind of player the Bears won’t want to risk losing to free agency.

2. Adrian Amos 
Usage: 16 games, 97.7 percent of defensive snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Given the Bears need to earmark a sizable chunk of cash for a Jackson contract extension, Amos may not fit in the team’s long-term plans. It’s not necessarily good business to have a lot of money tied up at safety — the average salary for a safety in 2018 was a little over $2.8 million, lower than any position on defense besides defensive tackle, per Spotrac. 

Still, it’s not always a bad thing — the Baltimore Ravens had an excellent defense in 2018 with nearly $23 million committed to their starting safeties, while the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl with the second-most cap space allocated to safeties. The Bears could value Amos’ durability and steady improvement over the last two years, though Amos could take those traits and see what he can get on the open market. 

2019’s free agent class of safeties is deep, led by LaMarcus Joyner, Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu (and, depending on what shakes out with the franchise tag in New York, Landon Collins) while including solid players like HaHa Clinton-Dix, Adrian Phillips, Anthony Harris and Amos. Perhaps the flooded market will decrease Amos’ price to a point the Bears are comfortable paying. If it doesn’t, though, the Bears may look to make Callahan the priority to re-sign. 

3. Deon Bush
Usage: 15 games, 14.5 percent of defensive snaps, 58.4 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $851,556 cap hit

If Amos departs in free agency, Bush would be the next man up, though he’d have to compete to win a starting job in 2019. The former fourth-round pick out of Miami played 45 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps in 2016, but wasn’t on the field much over the last two years outside of special teams. He held his own after Jackson sprained his ankle in Week 15.

4. DeAndre Houston-Carson 
Usage: 13 games, 4.4 percent of defensive snaps, 61.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Restricted free agent

The Bears could look to bring back Houston-Carson on a cheaper deal than the roughly $2 million it would take to retain him with an original-round tender as a restricted free agent. He’s been a solid special teams contributor for the last few years but has only played 70 snaps on defense since debuting in 2016. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 8

Letting Amos walk would open up a hole Pace could aim to fill with both a veteran free agent and a draft pick, along with the incumbent in Bush. Unless Amos does return, look for the safety spot opposite Jackson to produce a competitive battle during OTAs and training camp. 

The five most irreplaceable Bears in 2019

The five most irreplaceable Bears in 2019

The Bears deserve plenty of credit, from coach Matt Nagy to head trainer Andre Tucker to sport science coordinator Jen Gibson and everyone involved, for largely keeping the eventual NFC North champions healthy in 2018. The Bears lost tight end Adam Shaheen and right guard Kyle Long to injured reserve, yet had both players return during the season.

The most significant IR loss the team had was slot corner Bryce Callahan, who was placed on injured reserve after suffering a foot injury in Week 15. Backup linebacker Sam Acho and tight end Dion Sims were the other two players to land on IR in 2018. 

Only having five players be placed on IR (and having two return) was a major accomplishment for a team that frequently ended seasons with a double-digit list of guys on IR. But there was some luck involved, too -- luck the Bears can hope for, but can't count on, in 2019. This is football, and injuries are an unfortunately significant part of the game. 

So with that in mind, today we're looking at the five players the Bears can least afford to lose for a significant amount of time next season based on a few things: Talent, production, position, depth and money.

Consider this, too, a cheat sheet of sorts for where the Bears need to improve their depth over the next few months (except for quarterback). Here's the list:

1. Khalil Mack
2018 stats: 12 1/2 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 73 total pressures

The Bears’ defense managed just two sacks against the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and New York Jets after Mack suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the Bears’ loss to the Dolphins in Week 6. Mack played the rest of the game against Miami, and then against the Patriots, but sat out against the Jets and then the Buffalo Bills (the Bears had four sacks against a punchless offense quarterbacked by Nathan Peterman). It’s no coincidence that the Bears’ two worst defensive games of 2018 — allowing 31 points to the Dolphins and 24 to the Patriots — came as Mack was hobbled and ineffective. 

The Bears’ depth at outside linebacker looks thin heading into the 2019 offseason. Beyond Mack and Leonard Floyd, the Bears currently have Sam Acho (coming off a torn pec that ended his 2018 season) and unproven youngsters Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts, with Aaron Lynch set to become a free agent. Beyond Mack’s 12 1/2-sack production being largely irreplaceable, his playmaking ability and ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks was the top catalyst for the Bears having the NFL’s best defense in 2018. 

“He definitely brings a level of energy and a consistency at that position,” Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson said before the first round of the playoffs. “Definitely boosts the defensive line. He's definitely somebody you have to scheme for and know where he is.”

On top of Mack’s holistic impact on the defense, he carries with him a cap hit of $22.3 million in 2019 — which accounts for a little over 11 percent f the Bears’ total cap space. Literally and figuratively, the Bears can’t afford to lose him. 

2. Mitch Trubisky
2018 stats: 289/434 (66.6 percent), 3,223 yards, 24 TDs, 12 INTs, 95.4 passer rating

This is another obvious one, too: The Bears’ offense is built around Trubisky, no matter how capable a backup Chase Daniel may be. While the Bears went 1-1 with Daniel filling in for Trubisky last year, the chances the Bears could sustain a Super Bowl run with any backup quarterback not named Nick Foles are low. 

What the Bears need from Trubisky in 2019 is significant growth in Year 2 running Nagy’s offense. The Bears ranked 20th in yards per play, 21st in passing yards per game, 22nd in interception rate and 16th in first downs per game in 2018, and finished the year 20th in offensive DVOA (they did rank ninth in points scored per game, though that does factor in the six defensive touchdowns they tallied). The Bears need to be better, especially to combat a possible regression by the defense. 

The point here is this: The Bears’ offense won’t be able to take the step forward it needs without Trubisky operating it. His arm strength and athleticism — he rushed for 421 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt — make him a potentially dynamic threat, one to whom the entire Bears’ organization has staked their immediate future. 

3. Trey Burton
2018 stats: 76 targets, 54 catches, 569 yards, 6 touchdowns

While Burton’s numbers in 2018 weren’t eye-popping, his impact on the Bears’ offense was significant. 

The Bears’ offense stagnated in its wild card loss to the Eagles, one which was marred by the loss of Burton a little more than 24 hours before kickoff. That exposed a sneaky weakness of Nagy’s offense: Without a versatile “U” tight end, the Eagles were able to take away Tarik Cohen, who only had four touches in that 16-15 loss. 

While Allen Robinson admirably stepped up in place of Burton, the Bears’ offense lacked the kind of dynamic flexibility that made it difficult to defend at times in 2018. Burton played 80 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps last year, the highest of any skill position player. 

Finding a capable backup to Burton won’t be easy, especially because that player will be required to be a special teams contributor in the vein of Ben Braunecker (a restricted free agent) and Daniel Brown (an unrestricted free agent). Perhaps the Bears draft a “U” tight end April, though with limited picks that may not be a pressing enough need (then again, if scouts fall in love with a player, they’ll take him regardless of position). 

4. Eddie Jackson
2018 stats: 6 interceptions, 2 touchdowns 

Jackson initially wasn’t going to be on this list, with Akiem Hicks getting the nod over him. But as free agency approaches in a little over a month, the Bears seem unlikely to pour money into retaining Adrian Amos given Jackson will be in line for a deservedly-rich contract extension a year from now. It’s not necessarily good practice to have a sizable chunk of money tied up at the safety position, so unless the Bears can keep Amos on a bargain, it seems likely they’ll move on. 

Perhaps the Bears move forward with former fourth round pick Deon Bush, a cheap veteran free agent (perhaps like Tennessee’s Kenny Vaccaro) and a draft pick. But whatever the outcome is next to Jackson, the Bears will need the All-Pro on the field as much as possible without the experience of Amos next to him. 

The Bears were able to overcome Jackson’s absence after he sprained his ankle while running back an interception of Aaron Rodgers in Week 15 (while there were some egregious floating throws by Nick Foles in the playoffs that Jackson could’ve made a play on, the Bears still only allowed 16 points). But in 2019, without Amos, replacing him would be a more difficult task. 

5. Kyle Fuller
2018 stats: 7 interceptions, 13 PBUs, 66.6 passer rating when targeted (per PFF)

While most of the cornerback-focused attention over the next few weeks will swirl around Callahan, the Bears do have a sneaky need for better depth at outside cornerback behind Fuller and Prince Amukamara. At the very least, they’ll need competition for second-year undrafted free agent Kevin Toliver II, who has ideal length and athleticism but is short on experience. The Bears were lucky to only have the combination of Fuller and Amukamara miss one game in 2018 — and that was that laughable blowout win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Fuller gets the nod here, though, given how good he is (his seven interceptions led the NFL) and how much money the Bears have committed to him (his $13.5 million cap hit is the third-highest on the Bears in 2019). The Bears would do well to continue to develop Toliver while targeting some veteran competition and perhaps drafting a cornerback, too, something Pace has only done once in four years with the Bears (and that player, Deiondre’ Hall, was moved to safety). 

The Bears' plan to improve their NFL-leading defense

The Bears' plan to improve their NFL-leading defense

When you’re the best defense in the NFL, can you get better? The Bears and their new defensive coordinator think so.
 
But with the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player and without a pick in the first two rounds of the draft (the rounds in which they procured four starters over the last five drafts), the opportunities for the exponential leap that came with the trade for Khalil Mack and the selection of Roquan Smith last offseason are next to nil.
 
Still, “our vision for this defense is to be the best,” said Chuck Pagano upon arrival to succeed Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator. “Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there and they will continue to add pieces. Can we continue to be better than we were last year? Absolutely.”
 
The Bears can’t improve on their defensive ranking; hard to go up from No. 1. But the ’86 Bears put up better numbers than the more celebrated ’85 group – under a different coordinator. The Seattle Seahawks ranked No. 1 in scoring defense four straight years (2012-15), No. 3 in 2016, and Top 5 in yardage allowed all five years from 2012-2016, reaching at least the divisional round of the playoffs all five years, going to two Super Bowls and winning one (2013) – with three different defensive coordinators.
 
So excellence is sustainable. But if you aren’t moving forward, you’re falling behind, because someone (Minnesota? Dallas? The Chargers? Broncos? All are on the Bears’ 2019 schedule). “It's an old cliché’,” said GM Ryan Pace, “but you're never staying the same. You're getting better or getting worse. We need to make sure we're getting better.”
 
Before the 2018 season, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks stated that a Top 10 Bears defense of 2017 could ascend into the Top 5. And it did, with talent additions in the persons of Mack and Smith. And what Pagano has heard (legally) from his players is, “'We can be better, I can get better,'” Pagano said.
 
But how can “better” happen?
 
Offseason talk is easy. In-season getting-better, not so much.
 
Consider:
 
The Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways, five more than No. 2 Cleveland. Their 27 interceptions were more than their previous three seasons’ combined and the most in more than a quarter-century.
 
Mack in 13 games (two missed, one hobbled) posted the second-highest sack total (12.5) of his career, had a career-high 6 forced fumbles, and a career-best 4 passes defensed, to go with his second career interception and TD return.
 
Kyle Fuller’s 7 interceptions, one fewer than the total for the three previous seasons in which he played, tied for NFL honors and his 21 passes defensed led the league.
 
In just 14 games, Eddie Jackson delivered 6 interceptions (fourth in the NFL), two returned for touchdowns, plus a fumble return for a TD.
 
Prince Amukamara matched his career high with 3 interceptions. Adrian Amos’ 2 picks doubled his career total from three previous seasons. Roquan Smith went to the Pro Bowl with a team-leading 122 tackles.
 
All of which leading to a question as to how much better can a defense be after at least half of its starting members had equaled or exceeded their previous personal-bests.
 
A plan to for “better”
 
Interestingly, several players had “down” years, not as strong as previous peaks hit. Therein lie the obvious potentials for “better.”
 
Hicks was voted to the Pro Bowl after compiling 7.5 sacks, down from 8 the previous year. He felt he was stronger in 2017.
 
Leonard Floyd needed surgery to repair a fractured right hand, resulting in his starting the season with his hand in a large, cumbersome wrap. He went eight games without a sack, then had four in the next six games. The four sacks fell well short of the 7 over his 12-game rookie season.
 
“Even if he’s not flashy in the way you would want to see your outside linebacker flashing,” Hicks said, “he’s scaring offenses. So he already put that intimidation factor in there, and then to come up with the plays on top of that, the sky’s the limit for that guy.”
 
Nickel corner Bryce Callahan was lost to IR for the final three and playoff games. Rookie tackle Bilal Nichols had 2.5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits over the final eight games, earning a starting spot by game 10.
 
The Bears lost more than one-third of their 2017 sack total over the 2018 offseason, then offset most of it back with Mack. Since he has had four straight seasons of double-digit sacks, that range of production ls a reasonable expectation. More from Floyd, Nichols and Smith (5) project as the source of “better” for an already elite unit. 
 
To that end, Pagano has brought with him a plan.
 
“Our goal and our mindset will be to come in here and get better every single day at something,” Pagano said. “We will be intentional and we will be deliberate with everything that we do and the coaches will come up with a prescription and just like to the doctor and you're sick and he writes you a script for something.
 
“We will give these players, every one of them a ‘prescription’ and it will be just three precise, condensed things. We all can get better physically, mentally, knowing an understanding the game, knowing and understanding the playbook, the calls, the opponents. Guys will grow, guys will become better pros, we will get better off the field, we will get better on the field.”