The Bears have come up with a more creative and less expensive way of keeping free-agent cornerback Kyle Fuller.
They placed the rarely used transition tag on Fuller just hours before the Tuesday deadline, rather than using the more expensive franchise tag or letting one of their most valuable defensive players leave as an unrestricted free agent.
The transition tag guarantees Fuller $12.971 million in 2018 (the average of the top 10 CB salaries), and it gives the Bears time to work out a long-term deal with their best cornerback from 2017. Other teams can pursue Fuller with long-term deals, but the Bears retain the right to match any offer and keep Fuller, which they would certainly do, provided the offer wasn’t exorbitant. If the Bears refuse to match, they would receive no compensation.
The franchise tag would have cost the Bears $14.975 million (average of the top-five CB salaries) for Fuller this year. The difference is that the Bears would receive two first-round picks as compensation if he leaves.
Fuller, who was drafted by the Bears in the first round in 2014 (14th overall), is coming off by far the best year of his career. His 22 pass breakups were tied for second in the NFL, including six in Week 16, the most by any player in one game in 2017.
Fuller, who turned 26 last month, tied for the team lead with two interceptions and also played with impressive physicality in run support, tying for the team lead with 60 solo tackles. He was fourth on the Bears in total tackles with 68 and was one of only two NFL Players with at least 65 tackles and 20 pass breakups.
By using the tag, the Bears have until July 16 to work out a multiyear deal with Fuller, which seems to be their intention.
Last week at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Bears G.M. Ryan Pace characterized the team’s talks with Fuller as, “pretty aggressive,” and added: “Obviously we like Kyle, and he had a good season, and we’re happy with the way he’s progressed.”
However the Bears do it, they know they need to keep Fuller or risk adding cornerback to the list of positions already in need of upgrade in the offseason. Last year’s other CB starter, Prince Amukamara, becomes a free agent on March 14, and if the Bears don’t retain him, they’ll need to sign a similar player in free agency. Their next two corners on the depth chart, Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc, have both played well but are better-suited in the slot.
Although Amukamara has been a solid starter for the past six seasons, Fuller was clearly the better player in 2017. He’s more physical in run support and makes more plays on the ball than Amukamara, who will be 29 in June.
Fuller missed the entire 2016 season after a preseason arthroscopic procedure on his knee, which prompted the Bears to decline the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. But, after being called out by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Fuller bounced back with his best season. He started 30 games in his first two seasons out of Virginia Tech and had six interceptions and 129 tackles.