It's been a roller coaster ride for Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller the past season and a half.
The club's 2014 first-round selection (14th overall), Fuller was touted as the team's lock-down cornerback of the future, with size, speed and top-tier physicality, particularly against the run.
His first training camp was extremely impressive, with Fuller routinely shutting down both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in practice. That carried over to the regular season and he led the league in interceptions (3) after three weeks.
Yet the wheels came off for Fuller, who struggled mightily the remainder of the campaign. He had just one more interception the rest of the year (Week 17 vs. Minnesota) and was graded by Pro Football Focus (PFF) as the worst overall cornerback in the league.
Some gave him a pass his rookie season due to leg, hip and hand injuries that plagued him for the final three quarters of the year. Yet those struggles carried over to this off-season, then to training camp and into the regular season.
Fuller was benched during the Week 2 contest against the Arizona Cardinals, which appears to be his rock-bottom moment. In his first six games, he gave up four touchdowns and had no interceptions. He allowed receptions on 72 percent of passes thrown at him, while opposing quarterbacks had a 137.8 QB rating against.
Yet something happened during the Week 7 bye and that switch that has been buried downward the past year and a half finally flipped back upward.
The past three games, Fuller has allowed just 6 receptions on 18 pass attempts and has not given up a touchdown. His 33.3 catch percentage against is fifth best in the league at the cornerback position, per PFF, while his 19.2 QB rating against leads the NFL. Overall, PFF grades Fuller the fifth best corner in the league since Week 8.
Talk about a 180-degree turnaround.
“You have to focus every week in this league, especially at that position, where you’re out on an island so much," John Fox said. "You’re dealing with some pretty incredible athletes at the wide-receiver position. Just technique-wise, he’s honed in better, working a little bit harder at perfecting those skills in practice and I think it’s carried over into the game.”
Fuller is performing like the player the Bears believed he would be coming out of Virginia Tech. He's shown improvement in his play recognition and anticipation, and he's been aggressive when the ball is in the air. He's also been stout in run support and has missed just four tackles all season.
"He’s just playing a little better," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "There is no magic potion out there. You gotta go out there, experience success, do your job, break up a pass or two, you know, be tight to your man and make the plays when they come to you. The more he does that, the more confidence he will get."
The confidence factor can not be overstated. Fuller is playing like he believes he's a first-round talent. He no longer looks scared and unsure of himself, and he's making plays as a result. The Bears credited Fuller with two pass breakups last week against the Rams and his interception against the Vikings in Week 8 was the first by a Bears secondary player this season.
In addition, eight-year veteran Tracy Porter has found the fountain of youth. Now fully healthy, Porter has shined alongside Fuller the past three weeks, allowing a 50.0 completion percentage and a 68.2 QB rating against. Porter's numbers might pale in comparison to Fuller but they are still very good.
The Bears have won four of their last six, with their two losses coming by a combined six points. Realistically, they are two late field goals away from being 6-0, following an 0-3 start. There are a number of reasons for the team's recent success, not the least of which is the improvement of Fuller and Porter, who are playing like legitimate NFL-caliber starting cornerbacks.
That's a great sign for Chicago's defense going forward.