With his Bears selecting 14th in the 2014 NFL Draft, Phil Emery knew that the team was looking at the twilight season of cornerstone Charles “Peanut” Tillman, and a quality cornerback prospect would be available for the plucking – either Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or more realistically Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller.
Gilbert went 8th overall to the Browns, and when the 14th pick came up Phil Emery wasted no time in taking Fuller. The cowboy-boot-wearing and long-winded former GM expected Fuller to make a quick impact on a Bears team that many expected to build on an 8-8 season under head coach Marc Trestman.
“Specifically, in terms of the draft, you’re always looking for players who can contribute immediately, especially at the top end of the draft, that can provide not only a need but that can help provide some help, whether it’s a rotational player, a rotational starter. If it’s sub-starter [like a nickel back] immediately as a rookie, that’s good. If he’s a starter as a rookie and you have a hole and he can fill that and his grade warrants that pick, that’s good too.”
Fuller’s intangibles coming into the draft were mixed-to-positive, but many prized his decent size, arm length, and ability to make plays with the ball in the air. There were drawbacks: Mental errors, speed issues, inconsistent form – all things that NFL coaching should hopefully be able to sculpt into an All-Pro given time.
Early returns were outstanding.
After a crushing week 1 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Bears needed to do something they hadn’t done since 1985: Win in San Francisco. Losing in the 4th quarter, Fuller intercepted two Colin Kaepernick passes, both converted by Jay Cutler and the Bears offense into touchdowns, all part of a 21 point 4th quarter.
The Bears won 28-20, and with Charles Tillman injuring his triceps the onus was on Fuller to continue his ascent.
Fuller won the NFL Defensive Player of the Week for his performance, and would go on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.
By mid-October of 2014, Fuller was tied for the league lead in both interceptions and forced fumbles. Pro Football Focus had him as the NFL’s 5th best corner (when he was the primary defender on the throw), and Bleacher Report was discussing him as a heavy favorite to win NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Thanks to a constant stream of injuries (hand, hip, and knee), inconsistencies in his play, and the all-encompassing meltdown of the 2014 Bears, Fuller’s play the remainder of the season was more of what you’d an expect of an average rookie forced into action. To his credit he finished the year leading all rookies with 4 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles; his 14 pass breakups put him at a respectable 4th among his rookie class – these numbers were extremely close to Peanut Tillman’s rookie season, giving Bears fans a reason for excitement despite the bleak cloud of tumult hanging over Halas Hall by season’s end.
By the start of the 2015 season, Kyle Fuller had to learn the 3-4 with the hiring of Vic Fangio. Tiny injuries continued to plague the 2nd year corner during training camp and preseason, and by the time the regular season was in play many wondered if Fuller would be able to transition at all.
Fangio, not known for veiling his thoughts, speculated openly on whether Fuller’s commitment to success and apparent lack of work ethic was viable:
“I think ultimately it’s playing with confidence…Kyle’s got to be able to take his game from the practice field to the game field and play with confidence. You’re not going to have confidence until you do good things. You can’t just can’t say ‘I’m whoever’ and go out and play and have results.”
It wasn’t just the candid coordinator who openly wondered to the media about Fuller. Veteran safety Antrel Rolle was a regular contributor to WSCR, and said this during one appearance:
“He has to be a true professional, and he has to be a true studier of film. More importantly, he has to play with his strengths. If you’re going to press a guy, you have to make sure you put your hands on a guy. You can’t line up in front of a guy and then not disrupt him whatsoever.” – Antrel Rolle, 2015
Penalties piled up. Big pass plays thrown Fuller’s way turned into touchdowns. It didn’t take long for John Fox to make a statement in his own way – Fox benched Fuller in the 4th quarter of a 48-23 loss to the Cardinals. By mid-October Fangio denied any ideas about moving Fuller to the nickel corner role or even to safety, re-stating that hard work and practice will pay off.
He was right. As the season came near a close, Fuller had rebounded nicely, and coaches and players alike were proud of his progress. Fox, himself a former defensive backs coach, gave a lot of credit to Tracy Porter for demonstrating the film study necessary to help Fuller improve his game in the small but crucial ways.
While his second year in the NFL wasn’t as statistically impressive as his rookie campaign, there was a universal agreement among critics and coaches – Kyle had turned his season around and his hard work had paid off.
In 2016 Fuller was saying all the right things and once again worked hard to study technique and film – confidence was high that he’d be an impact player in 2016 if he continued on this path, but once again the injuries that have followed him around since his rookie year caused problems.
By late August the Bears decided to be proactive, placing Fuller on Injured Reserve so he could have arthroscopic knee surgery.
“Injuries get in the way of progress. It was kind of getting worse and worse. Something (with his knee) didn’t get better. And I’m not a big fan of doing the same stuff. It was bothering him and we wanted to see and get it fixed.”
By September 9th Fuller was a limited participant in practice and listed as Questionable for the Bears’ week 1 matchup against Houston. He didn’t play that week, or several weeks after. As September wrapped up, Fuller continued to practice on a limited basis and encouraged patience from those wondering what the deal was.
“I have to do what my body tells me. [My return] didn’t go as fast as I would expect it. But it is what it is.”
As November wrapped up, questions about Fuller getting activated from Injured Reserve were seemingly about to get answered, as the 49ers game seemed the ideal late-season game to get the former 1st rounder back on the field. Fox put some cold water on expectations with one of his typically mysterious responses.
“So much of it is just the actual practice. Some of it can be scout reps, but it’s actually how he’s in tune with what we’re doing with our defenses. He’s been away from it for some time. He’s been in the meetings, but to actually do it is different.”
After the Bears lost a crushing game to the Green Bay Packers just a few short days ago, Vic Fangio was asked about Fuller’s anticipated return, and his answer was rather startling:
“Anytime a guy’s hurt, there are three stages to getting back to the field. One is you’ve got to get medical clearance. Two, the player has to say he’s ready to go and feels confident, and he’s champing at the bit to play. And then the coaches get involved and see if he’s better than what the other choices are and if he really is back to being able to play. ‘A’ has happened. ‘B’ hasn’t, so ‘C’ is a non-issue.”
There’s starting to be gossip among Bears pundits that this stinks very similarly to the Derrick Rose era for the Bulls, where the odd former MVP seemed reluctant to return to game action, saying nobody but God knew when the time was right to come back.
We’re only a few days removed from this surprising bit of candor on Fuller’s desire to play the game, and whether or not he’ll play this season remains a mystery, as does the possibility to return to the Bears in 2017.
Justin Gilbert, 8th overall pick the same season Fuller was drafted at 14, knows what it’s like to disappoint. After the Browns had seen enough of the often-lost and once-heralded cornerback, Gilbert was unceremoniously dumped to the Steelers for a 6th round pick before the 2016 season began.
With the Bears season winding down, many fans are asking what return Kyle Fuller would get.
If Kyle Fuller ever wears a Bears uniform again, hopefully he’ll remember what made him love the game, and what it means to work hard, be humble, and fight for every play.
I’m very competitive, especially with my brothers. That’s helped me to get to where I am now. We always want to be better than the next guy, no matter how fast we are or how many plays we make. All the way back to when I was eight years old, we always loved football, going in the backyard and always wanting to play.”
We’ll see, 23. We’ll see.