On May 9, 2014, exactly five years ago today, the Bears were coming off an 8-8 debut campaign under rookie head coach Marc Trestman. Then-GM Phil Emery had recently completed his final free-agent shopping spree in Chicago, importing pass rushers Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Jared Allen, DT Jeremiah Ratliff and S Ryan Mundy, among others, to arguably the NFL’s worst defense.
The previous night, the Bears spent the 14th overall pick on the quiet but confident West Virginia CB Kyle Fuller. The selection drew the ire of some fans longing for Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville’s Calvin Pryor to replace Chris Conte, whose blown coverage on the Aaron Rodgers-Randall Cobb game-winner in the NFC North title game a few months was burned into their brains.
As he met the Chicago media, Fuller discussed his versatility — inverted safety!? — and strong bloodlines — wait, how many brothers also play in the NFL!? — to name just a couple of the talking points in what surely remains his longest NFL news conference to date.
After one month of his rookie season, Fuller appeared poised to build on the legacy of his predecessor, Charles Tillman, whom he literally replaced that magical night in San Francisco. After one full season, he was an All-Rookie performer, but the Bears were tearing everything down and abandoning the scheme and coaches Fuller was picked for.
It got worse — a lot worse — for Fuller in Year 2, when he was benched in-game early in the season by new DC Vic Fangio following his second blown coverage and subsequent DPI way down the field. He finished his sophomore campaign with two interceptions —half of his rookie total — and no forced fumbles, after three “Peanut punches” in his first four rookie starts.
That decreased production would have been welcome in 2016.
Fuller in Year 3 never made it out of the doghouse and onto the field following an August knee scope and had his toughness and commitment to the game questioned publicly by Fangio. At that point, his future in Chicago was nothing if not murky, and after GM Ryan Pace opted the following spring not to pick up his fifth-year option, Fuller’s Bears fate appeared sealed.
Then something unusual happened. Entering his contract season, confidence seemingly renewed, Fuller became a tape junkie and unequivocal believer in what Fangio was teaching. He returned to start all 16 games, finishing second in the NFL in pass breakups (24) and rediscovering the consistency that made him a first-round pick and rookie standout.
Because the Bears had declined his fifth-year option, they wisely used the transition tag as a contingency plan and, after the Packers signed Fuller to an offer sheet, quickly locked up their best corner to a long-term deal with a four-year, $56 million contract.
The Bears would undergo another coaching change last offseason but managed to retain Fangio and DB coach Ed Donatell, the two men other than Fuller most responsible for his renaissance. And Fuller not only impressively retained the fire and form from his contract season, he took his game to a whole new level, recording a career-high seven interceptions and earning his first Pro Bowl invite and first-team All-Pro honor.
Now, Fuller is more than the anchor of the NFL’s top secondary. He’s the biggest success story and best example of a former first-rounder having his option year waived and still flourishing. So with last week’s deadline to pick up 2020 options marking a record 45 percent of 2016 first-rounders either not having it exercised or sticking with their original teams, they might want to take a page from Fuller’s — and the division champion Bears — redemption story.