“Fuller had a nice year as a rookie,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said during OTAs. “We expect him to be a good corner in this league.”
While the jury is still out on Fuller, who struggled mightily in the second half of 2014, it appears his job as the top boundary corner in Chicago is safe.
The same can’t be said for the rest of the cornerback position, where a number of shifts have already taken place. The biggest transition applies to two-time Pro Bowler Tim Jennings, who will work mainly out of the slot this season.
“Dimension-wise, he’s built like a nickel corner,” said head coach John Fox. “He’s played [in the slot] before.”
With the 31-year-old Jennings relegated mainly to sub packages this season, there will be open competition in training camp for the Bears’ No. 2 cornerback position.
Let’s evaluate each candidate and how he might fit as Chicago’s starting boundary corner.
The Bears signed Ball to a one-year deal this offseason. The eight-year NFL veteran, who turned 30 in March, is coming off two fairly productive years as a starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In 2013, he started 15 games, compiling 14 pass breakups and two interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), opposing quarterbacks had a 75.3 passer rating and a 54.4 completion percentage, both of which are very good, when throwing at Ball. He also gave up just two touchdowns that year.
At 6-2, 197, Ball has elite cornerback size. On film he’s fairly physical in man coverage and shows good instincts, while using his length to make plays on the ball.
The Bears are paying Ball $3 million this year, which is starter-level money. Fangio relies on quality press-man corners and obviously feels Ball can be that type of player.
Ball’s biggest issue right now is injury. He was placed on IR last year after seven games due to a torn bicep and has yet to practice with the Bears this off-season. He’s been running on his own during practice but hasn’t been getting the meaningful reps he needs as Fangio installs the new 3-4 system.
That’s a problem, especially if his injury – which to this point is undeclared – lingers into training camp. Ball is already a step behind his teammates and could fall even further back if he’s forced to sit out practices in Bourbonnais.
All that time riding the pine may open the door for Ball’s biggest competitor.
The Bears traded fullback Tyler Clutts for McManis prior to the start of the 2012 regular season. He’s been a core member on special teams the last three years but has seen very little action on defense.
Yet there are a number of reasons to believe the 27-year-old is ready to contribute at cornerback on a regular basis.
At 6-1, 193, McManis has very good size and he ran a 4.48 40-yard dash coming out of Northwestern in 2010, so he also NFL-level speed.
McManis was outstanding during training camp last season and appeared poised for a breakout campaign. Yet multiple injuries set him back at the start of the regular season, from which he could never recover. As a result, he was relegated back to his role as a special teams ace.
This off-season, McManis has again looked good on the practice field and has made a number of plays on defense. With Ball sidelined, McManis has taken the lion’s share of first-team reps alongside Fuller, which should serve him well in Bourbonnais.
McManis has the skill set to win this competition and already has his foot in the door. If he has another stellar training camp, it’s going to be tough for Fangio to keep him off the field.
Sleeper Candidate: Al Louis-Jean
After earning a spot on the practice squad following training camp last year, Louis-Jean was called up in Week 8 and was active for nine contests his rookie season. He played 122 defensive snaps for the Bears in 2014, fourth most at the position, although the results were less than ideal. Per PFF, opposing quarterbacks had a whopping 152.6 passer rating when throwing at Louis-Jean, who allowed two touchdowns on 13 passes thrown his way. That’s bad.
Still, Louis-Jean is just 21 years old and has ideal NFL size (6-1, 187). He’s a project for sure but one it appears the new staff is willing to take on. During off-season practices, Louis-Jean rotated with McManis and Fuller with the first team.
Louis-Jean is very young and has a ton of upside. If he shines during training camp and the preseason, he’ll not only earn a spot on the final 53-man roster but could see plenty of playing time on defense.
In all likelihood, Ball is going to win this competition due in large part to his experience. McManis has one career start and Louis-Jean is probably too green to be trusted at this point in his career. Giving Ball the No. 2 role is the safest route to take, particularly early in the campaign.
Yet that will only happen if Ball stay on the practice fields in Bourbonnais. If his injury lingers, someone else will step up to take his place.
Even if Ball begins the regular season with the first-team defense, don’t rule out McManis as the season progresses. He’s three years younger than Ball and has flashed serious playmaking ability in the past.
McManis has never been given a full-time opportunity on defense, so there’s an element of intrigue working in his favor. If Ball falters in any way, or if Fuller again struggles, don’t be surprised if Fangio rotates in McManis, who could run away with the job.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.