Imagine a tree that grows 6-foot defensive backs that run 4.4. It isn’t hard to do — at least not in the NFL, anyway, where cover men with those measurables are the norm.
But a tree that grows 6-foot defensive backs that run 4.4, are ball hawks and come up vs. the run?
It figures that Bears All Pro CB Kyle Fuller grew from the legendary Fuller family tree, whose branches also include older brother Vincent, a retired seven-year veteran corner who played mostly with the Tennessee Titans; younger brother Kendall, the Kansas City Chiefs’ ascendant third-year CB1; and Corey, a former sixth-round receiver with the Detroit Lions who’s currently unsigned.
“It’s hard to find guys that can go play balls in the air and that are willing to tackle,” new secondary coach Deshea Townsend explained Wednesday in discussing Fuller. “He takes the ball away. He’s out there every week. He plays against their best receivers. And he’s been doing it a high level.”
OK, but what about a tree that not only grows prototype defensive backs in size, ball production and run support but also with top-tier study habits, too?
“[Fuller] is a student of the game,” Townsend explained. “When I sit and talk to him, we can have a conversation about football. And that’s really rare. You have a guy who doesn’t rely on his God-given physical ability; he can mentally play the game. And that’s impressive for a corner to have that.”
Indeed, and never was it more apparent than last season, when Fuller tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions en route to his first postseason (and postseason honors in the form of a Pro Bowl and the aforementioned All-Pro nod).
The quiet Fuller explained his evolution leading up to his monster 2018 last summer in Bourbonnais, referencing indirectly his work off the field that enhanced his confidence in between the white lines.
“Just the understanding of the game, being more comfortable,” Fuller said. “When you’re comfortable and confident, it definitely makes a big difference.”
And the difference was profound: The seven picks were one shy of the total in his first four seasons combined. His tackling and coverage technique were as strong as ever. And it all came on the heels of him signing the lucrative second NFL deal, when some players are satisfied.
Amazingly, Fuller’s career year almost never happened — at least not with the Bears.
Chicago declined the fifth-year 2018 option on the former first-rounder’s rookie contract in the spring of 2017. But Fuller answered the bell with a strong contract year after missing all of his third season following a summer knee scope. He parlayed 24 passes defensed — the third-most in the league — into a four-year, $56 million deal last spring after initially receiving the transition tag and an offer sheet from the rival Green Bay Packers.
Unlike two of Fuller’s key developers in his first five seasons, former DC Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell, Townsend is new to the Bears. Not Fuller’s study habits. Townsend said they’re currently working on recognizing and recalling receiver splits.
“You just got to watch [film],” fellow first-time first-team All Pro S Eddie Jackson said. “I got it from Kyle Fuller. Kyle watched film more than anybody I know, so I just kind of looked at it, took that and ran with it.”
Fuller’s mentorship may or may not reach the level of former teammate Tracy Porter, who used to host film sessions at home with his fellow defensive backs. But it’s clear his preparation has already rubbed off on Jackson, and to hear Townsend tell it, that certainly bodes well for the third-year safety — and the Bears defense as a whole.
“Pretty much everybody in the league is 6-feet and can run 4.4,” Townsend said. “That’s just the tale of the tape. It’s the mental part that separates you. That’s where [Jackson] is at in this point of his career — how can I do all the little things right that you don’t really see out here that shows up in the game? That’s the next step for him.”
Fuller might have already taken his proverbial next step, but he and Jackson should only continue rising.