Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller was leading the league in interceptions (3) through the first three weeks of his rookie campaign in 2014. He was playing like a Pro Bowler and appeared to be the club’s lock-down corner of the future.
Yet the season quickly spiraled out of control for the first-round rookie. Fuller struggled for the remainder of the season, allowing a 63.4 completion percentage against and giving up five touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Fuller graded as the second worst coverage corner in the NFL last year.
In his defense, Fuller suffered through hip and hand injuries last season, which affected his movement and quickness. Many believed that a healthy Fuller this season would return to the form he showed early last year. Unfortunately for the Bears, that has not happened.
Fuller struggled throughout OTAs, minicamp and training camp, and was routinely beat by receiver Alshon Jeffery. To be fair, no Bears corner could cover Jeffery this off-season, yet Fuller had no trouble with him during last year’s camp.
It was clear in Bourbonnais that Fuller has yet to regain his confidence and that has carried over to the preseason. Through two games, Fuller has been thrown at five times, all of which were completed. Last night he added a missed tackle and an unsportsmanlike penalty (taunting) to his troubling preseason.
Whatever the reason, Fuller is not playing like a starting NFL cornerback. In fact, he’s barely performing like a backup. Say what you want about his lack of a supporting cast or the lack of a pass rush last year, the fact of the matter is that he is not making plays.
The proof is in the pudding: the kid is not getting it done and has been a borderline liability in coverage since October last year.
Despite that, Fuller’s coaching staff and teammates continue to sing his praises:
“You’ve seen Fuller, man. He’s ahead of the curve,” Tim Jennings said. “Really he’s grown more mature, more as a player, as a man. And he’s definitely gotten better.”
“Kyle has looked great out there,” said Alshon Jeffery. “He’s a lot better. A lot more confident. We have our battles. I would say he’s a lot better than last year. He’s not a rookie no more.”
“I think he’s a great young player,” Eddie Royal said. “He’s scrappy, he’s got long arms, he’s good with jamming. He’s got all the intangibles in the world. That’s what kind of stood out to me from the beginning.”
The Bears continue to talk up Fuller but every time he steps on the field, he gets beat. It’s a broken record, so at what point do you take the record off the turntable and save that precious needle?
Based purely on performance – and if you’ve followed the NFL for any length of time, you’ve heard the phrase “performance-based business” more times than you can count – Fuller does not deserve to be a starter.
He’s not a lost cause – Fuller has all the physical tools to succeed in the NFL – but if he continues down his current path, he’s going to hinder Chicago’s secondary in the short term.
As such, sitting Fuller and letting him build back some of his confidence might be the best course of action. Repeatedly sending him out there to get torched has not helped the situation, so maybe a break would do him well.
The problem in that cornerback might be the weakest position on the Bears’ roster. Tim Jennings doesn’t look like his old self, Alan Ball has underperformed and Tracy Porter can’t stay healthy. Beyond that, the Bears do not have any experienced corners on the roster.
Yet is that such a bad thing?
Chicago’s defense is going through a major transition. A return to respectability won’t happen overnight. Expectations for this year are very low, so what’s to lose by giving an up-and-coming player with potential a shot at the first-team gig?
Specifically, Sherrick McManis and Terrance Mitchell have earned an opportunity to prove themselves with the first team. McManis has been working out of the slot the past week but at 6-1, 193, his size and skill set isn’t suited for nickel work. He’s a better fit for the boundary corner position, where his ball skills and overall athleticism could allow him to flourish.
McManis has been targeted nine times this preseason, the most of any Bears corner, allowing just four completions and only 13 yards after the catch. He also has a forced fumble, fumble recovery and a pass breakup, and has looked good against the run. At this point, McManis is the better option over Fuller.
Mitchell, a 2014 undrafted free agent out of Oregon, has been making waves since rookie minicamp. In nearly every practice this off-season, Mitchell has made a play. That has carried over to the preseason, where Mitchell has yet to allow a completion (on three targets). In last night’s game, he demonstrated his coverage ability, going up and over a Colts receiver for a deep-ball interception.
Mitchell doesn’t have the big name and draft status like Fuller, but what’s to hurt by putting him, or McManis, out there with the big boys? If they fail, the Bears fall back on Fuller, but if they flourish, it would give the former first rounder time to gather himself on the bench, and potentially return a better player.
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.