Today, it can be hard to imagine legitimate concerns from inside and outside the Bears’ fanbase that Kyle Fuller would play elsewhere in 2018. Or worse, that he would be donning green and gold.
Thankfully for Chicago, Green Bay’s offer sheet to Fuller in restricted (due to the transition tag) free agency was matched in a matter of hours. The then-fifth year man out of Virginia Tech remained a Bear, and the rest is history. Fuller claimed first team All-Pro honors and was a major piece of the best defense in football.
He returns, as does his counterpart on the outside, but the spot in the slot has undergone a remodel since last year. Also worth noting is that the man calling coverages are no longer here, replaced by Chuck Pagano. His predecessor, Vic Fangio, is credited with helping turn around Fuller’s career. Pagano has an extensive background coaching defensive backs, but it remains to be seen if his scheme jives with how Fuller thrives.
Here is a complete preview of the 2019 Bears’ cornerbacks.
Fuller enters 2019 on the heels of his best season yet, coming down with seven interceptions and knocking down plenty more targets. This was a good thing, because Fuller seems to attract a lot of targets, as he tied for second in the league with 105.
This makes sense, given his style of play. He will give receivers a mostly free release off the line of scrimmage in Cover Four, Cover Three, or Man, but he attacks hard and often with force when the ball is out. His favorite baiting strategy is to sit on the inside of an out route in and break towards the ball at first chance; this accounted for two of the seven. Will quarterbacks lay off next year, now that they’re fully aware of what he can do? Who knows, but either outcome is good for Chicago.
Amukamara isn’t on Fuller’s level, or at least the ’17-’18 version of Fuller, but he’s a solid player in his own right. The Bears under Fangio didn’t swap their corners based on matchups – Fuller always had the defense’s left, and Amukamara the right – so he faced his fair share of top offensive targets, and (with the exception of Davante Adams) he held his own. Amukamara’s forte is physicality and lack of targets, but Bears fans will not forget his read, reaction, and march to the house to seal a massive Week Two win over Seattle.
The new hire at nickel is Skrine, on whom the Bears (Matt Nagy especially) are very high, indicated by a contract that essentially locks him onto the 53-man roster for two years. Numbers like opponent passer rating and penalty count were not kind to the former Jet and Brown. However, aggressiveness is clearly a trait that Pace and company look for when scouting slot corners and Skrine fits that bill quite well. Seeing him on a stacked defense for the first time in his career will be intriguing.
When Assistant Director of Player Personnel Champ Kelly, among others, spoke to fans and media (including myself) at the Bears’ 100-year celebration, he singled out Toliver as someone who was having a great offseason. A year removed from going undrafted – in large part due to non-football concerns – Toliver enters 2019 as the first man off the bench if either outside corner is hurt.
McManis returns as a backup nickel, and he performed admirably in place of future Bronco Bryce Callahan last year, but his far more important job is as the Bears’ premier special teamer. Shelley is a rookie sixth-rounder who many fans believe can make an instant impact; more on that in a second.
The only other man worth noting is Clifton Duck, because I love his name and on some level badly want him to make the team.
Key Training Camp Battle: Can Shelley earn early reps?
Based on the film that I saw, Shelley projects really well as the Bears’ nickelback of the future. He isn’t afraid to jump routes and make plays on the ball, and he has the instincts to do so effectively. That job is not up for grabs right now, however, as the Bears have made their feelings towards Skrine quite clear.
However, there are other ways for Shelley to get on the field. Two other ways, to be specific: dime packages, which Pagano loves, and special teams. That being said, those two spots require two of Shelley’s weaknesses to be strengths: high-speed pursuit angles and tackling technique. As I explained in the thread below, Shelley will have to improve upon both by September if he would like to dress on game days.
Here’s one where both of these tendencies come back to bite him. It didn’t cost K-State often because outside receivers don’t usually have the moves/balance to take advantage, but slot receivers, running backs, and kick returners will. pic.twitter.com/4p0jY5jDMi
— Jack Soble (@jacksobleTLS) May 7, 2019
Keys to Success
1. Fuller’s freedom
As SB Nation’s Brett Kollmann explains in this video, you will often see the Bears’ outside corner duo play completely different styles of coverages on the same play. This is because Fangio gave both of them the liberty to do whatever they felt comfortable with, as long as they stayed with their assigned man or zone.
Whatever Pagano does, he cannot under any circumstances try to force Fuller into becoming something he’s not. Many secondary coaches might have to be gagged in order to stop them from instructing their players to get hands on the receiver in man – or to press on a deep quarters call, for that matter – but Pagano has to avoid fixing what isn’t broken.
2. Attack screens
Losing Callahan, who for my money was the best slot corner in football last season when he was on the field (that caveat is why he’s gone), will hurt here but the Bears need to carry on his aggressive mindset against quick receiver screens. Get low, dip under the stalk blocker’s shoulder, and deliver a pop in order to stop potential YAC.
Amukamara, and to a lesser extent, Fuller, did quite well in this area last year. Along with Skrine, they will have to keep it up. The Bears are starting two safeties who are minus tacklers, so letting any quick screens reach the deep secondary could have serious consequences.
3. Turnovers, more turnovers, even more turnovers, did I mention turnovers
This the primary job of every secondary in the league. Get the ball. The Bears were quite successful at doing so last year, which compensated for offensive slip-ups and won more than a few ballgames. Now, they must do it again.
This is why I maintain at least a bit of confidence in Buster Skrine, despite not being a fan of him as a player. With less time to be spent sticking with receivers, due to the Bears’ ferocious pass rush and more reliable help on the back end, Skrine’s aggressiveness could create turnovers as opposed to yards and penalties.
This has become a theme throughout the three keys: aggressiveness. Cornerback groups who take what they believe is rightfully theirs and don’t worry as much about less confident units tend to be far more successful. In particular, the ones who have Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and company doing work up front to narrow the coverage interval and Eddie Jackson roaming deep can afford to attack and jump routes with regularity.
Again, this is an attitude and a playing style that the Bears’ corners utilized to perfection last year. Now it’s a matter of repetition.