While retaining cornerback Kyle Fuller appears to be the Chicago Bears’ top priority at this point in the offseason, GM Ryan Pace hinted that the breakout corner might not be the only one on the team’s radar:
$Bears GM Ryan Pace: “I would say cornerback this year in free agency and the draft is a good position so that’s beneficial to us.”
— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) February 28, 2018
Not only do the Bears have the inside track on bringing Fuller back thanks to the franchise tag, the team could drastically improve the secondary with additions in free agency and the upcoming NFL Draft. Let’s explore a few avenues Chicago can travel en route to bolstering its secondary.
OPTION I: RETAIN KYLE FULLER
This one seems easy, doesn’t it? Re-signing the team’s best cornerback to a contract that extends him through his prime years on the heels of a breakout season makes all the sense in the world.
After three years in Vic Fangio’s system, the light-bulb went off and Fuller came into his own in 2017. He played the second most snaps among Bears defenders last year and earned a team-best 84.3 grade from Pro Football Focus in the process. Fuller isn’t the same player he was as a rookie in Mel Tucker’s scheme, but he has still yet to show a consistent ability to force turnovers and come up with interceptions. Then again, he is just 26 and the his best years could still be on their way.
Coming up with a fair contract offer won’t be easy. While a successful 2017 is fresh in our minds, it’s impossible to forget 2016 was a lost year, 2015 was equal parts promising and disappointing, and that 2014 rookie year had highs and lows. If push comes to shove and the two sides can’t come to a deal, the Bears could use the franchise tag and make him prove it all over again.
OPTION II: EXPLORE FREE AGENT OPTIONS
Fuller isn’t the only top-notch free agent cornerback on the market.
Malcolm Butler can stake a claim to being the best free agent cornerback and could be rewarded handsomely after a productive four-year run with New England. Butler has played in 59 games, made 48 starts, and has come away with eight interceptions with the Patriots. He was a Super Bowl hero as a rookie in 2014 and a Pro Bowler as a second-year player in 2015. Butler has been steady and reliable, flashing strong man coverage skills as well as a willingness and ability to defend the run.
The Los Angeles Rams have used the franchise tag on Trumaine Johnson in each of the last two years and aren’t likely to do so for a third time, especially after trading for Marcus Peters. Johnson, listed at 6-foot-2, 213 pounds, is a physical defender and skilled cover corner. Los Angeles would love to keep its secondary in tact and team Peters with Johnson, but it looks like the team will have to choose between Johnson and safety LaMarcus Joyner, who is also a free agent who could command big bucks in free agency.
Pro Football Focus’ free agency guide deems Chicago as the best fit Washington’s Bashaud Breeland if the team isn’t able to come to terms to an agreement with Fuller. Breeland improved his passer rating against to 75.6 in 2017 after it had been 91.7 in 2016 and 93.8 in 2015.
My favorite under-the-radar free agent target is Rashaan Melvin. The 28-year-old five-year pro from Northern Illinois University had a breakthrough year for the Indianapolis Colts in 2017. Melvin held opposing quarterbacks to a 60.3 passer rating, which ranked as the 12th best passer rating allowed among the 126 corners who played at least 150 coverage snaps. He was also a solid run defender, ranking 20th in run-stop percentage among qualifying corners. At 6-2, 190, Melvin has ideal size for cornerbacks. With a few prime years still to come, Melvin is the kind of free agent Pace has shown a fondness for during his time in Chicago. Could Melvin be to the secondary what Akiem Hicks was to the Bears’ defensive line?
OPTION III: TARGET A PROSPECT EARLY IN THE NFL DRAFT
Pace’s own words suggest the Bears could conceivably be in the market to draft a stud, playmaking cornerback. Even though he is a bit undersized, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward is believed to be the best and most NFL-ready cornerback prospect in this class. Ward’s speed, athleticism, and ball skills have scouts drooling about his potential as a potential No. 1 corner.
Iowa’s Joshua Jackson could make a case to be the draft’s best cornerback prospect. Having played for a demanding Iowa program, Jackson showed great ball skills by coming away with eight interceptions. At 6-1, 192 pounds, Jackson has the size Ward lacks but has limited experience.
OPTION IV: TARGET A PROSPECT ON DAY 2 OF THE NFL DRAFT
Pace has struck gold selecting defensive players outside the first round in each of his first three drafts. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman (2nd round, 2015), safety Adrian Amos (5th round 2015), linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (4th round, 2016), and safety Eddie Jackson (4th round, 2017) come to mind. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears unearthed a starting caliber defensive back on Day 2 or Day 3 of the draft.
Auburn’s Carlton Davis (6-1, 203) was an All-American in 2017 and has been connected to the Bears in prior mock drafts. He could fall to the second round, which would be a steal. Florida State’s Tarvarus McFadden is an under-the-radar type who could be picked in the middle rounds. McFadden uses size, strength, and length to his advantage in man coverage and when going up for 50-50 balls. Louisville’s Jaire Alexander is an ultra-talented corner who is a first-round talent, but missed time due to a knee injury and a broken hand in 2017. Sounds like Eddie Jackson, who saw his draft stock drop because of his own durability concerns.
OPTION V: COMBO PLATTER
Because Marcus Cooper and Cre’von LeBlanc are the only cornerbacks currently under contract, the Bears would be wise to use a combination of the aforementioned options.
For example, they could use the franchise tag to keep Fuller for a year, sign another top-rated corner to a big-money, long-term deal, and draft a first-round cornerback. They could also extend Fuller, sign a free agent like Johnson, Butler, or Melvin to put on the other side, and draft a cornerback in the later rounds.
In the end, the Bears are at a point where they should be looking to shore up the position for the long haul. After all, it’s impossible to rebuild the cornerbacks room every year. At some point, some continuity among that group would be appreciated.