As we all know, Kyle Fuller had a breakout season in 2017 after missing all of 2016 with a knee injury. He led the NFL in passes broken up and ranked 17th among all cornerbacks in both completion percentage and passer rating allowed, per Pro Football Focus. Now general manager Ryan Pace has to decide what to do with Fuller, who is set to enter unrestricted free agency as one of the top cornerbacks on the market.
Let’s take a look at his options.
One weapon at Pace’s disposal is the franchise tag, which would guarantee Fuller the average of the top 5 cap hits at the cornerback position in 2018. Right now, that would look like a one year, $15.3 million contract that is fully guaranteed (per Spotrac). Pace can choose to apply this tag at any point between February 20 and March 6, and it seems likely to happen unless the Bears and Fuller can reach a long-term agreement first.
Now let’s take a look at comparable contracts signed in recent years, as those give us a general baseline for what range of contract Fuller should expect. It typically works out so that he and his agents will push for one of the bigger comparable contracts, the Bears point to the smaller ones, and the sides will negotiate from there.
Thankfully there are a number of big-name cornerbacks who have signed deals coming off of their rookie contracts in the past two years. Their contracts are shown in the table below.
This clearly sets up general parameters for a long-term Fuller deal. It would likely be 5 years long, for somewhere between $12 and $15 million a year, with somewhere between 30% and 50% of the money guaranteed.
Before we consider where Fuller should slot within this range, there are two factors to keep in mind:
- The cap keeps going up. It’s projected to be just under $180 million in 2018, about 7% higher than 2017 and 15% higher than 2016. Expect top contracts to go up as well.
- Leverage matters. Rhodes, Trufant, Peterson, and Slay all re-signed with their current teams with a year left on their contract. That helps keep the price a little bit lower than players who re-sign right before free agency, like Fuller would do (and Kirkpatrick did) or leave to another team in free agency (like Bouye, Gilmore, Ryan, and Jenkins). The Bears could tag Fuller and then look to negotiate a long-term deal, but having $15.3M fully guaranteed for one season doesn’t exactly hurt Fuller’s leverage, and might actually make agreeing on a long-term deal more difficult after the tag has been applied.
So then the question becomes this: how does Kyle Fuller view himself, and how do the Bears view Fuller?
It seems reasonable to think Fuller should be on the lower end of this contract range. He’s not as good as players like Peterson, Rhodes, Trufant, Norman, and Slay, and he only has one year of top-level production (and even that was not quite at the level of the players I just mentioned). Thus it would be entirely reasonable for the Bears to start with something along the lines of Dre Kirkpatrick’s deal, and negotiate up towards there.
But Fuller is also well within his rights to think he should slot in on the higher end of this range. It’s not uncommon for players to have a high opinion of themselves, and Fuller also has leverage as somebody who is about to hit unrestricted free agency, where contracts tend to be higher than when players re-sign with their own team a year before free agency.
It’s also worth noting that contract structure matters just as much as-if not more than-the numbers presented above. Thus I’d like to look at the 2 contracts I think offer the best comparisons for Fuller and see what they actually look like year by year. Those are the deals signed last year by AJ Bouye and Stephon Gilmore. Both players are the most recent contracts and look at top free agents from a year ago. Let’s look at how they break down year by year. The column under the players’ names shows the total money they receive for their service if they are cut after that season, and the dead cap shows how much of that money would still be on the teams’ books for future years.
Here you see a clear difference in the structure: Gilmore is basically guaranteed three years and $42M, while Bouye is only guaranteed 2 years and $27M. Even though Bouye got the “bigger” overall deal, his contract is more team friendly.
What I would do
If I were Ryan Pace, I would start the negotiations by pointing to the deals Janoris Jenkins and Dre Kirpatrick signed. These are on the low end of the range, leaving you room to negotiate upwards, but still present a good faith offer. When Fuller and his agents invariably respond back with higher offers (likely pointing to the deals signed by Josh Norman, Patrick Peterson, and Xavier Rhodes), you can then meet somewhere in the middle, which is where AJ Bouye and Stephon Gilmore sit.
I would then try to settle on basically matching AJ Bouye’s deal, which I think is a real win for both sides. Let’s look at it from both perspectives:
- Bears: get Fuller for 2 years and $27M instead of 1 year and $15M. If he can’t back 2017 up, it’s only one extra year. If he does back it up, you have him signed through his prime for a couple million dollars a year less than he would cost on the open market next year (or on a franchise tag next year, which would be $18.4M). Contracts are only going to keep going up as the cap rises and more good players sign a new wave of deals.
- Fuller: He’s guaranteed $27M instead of $15M, which is pretty good off of just one breakout season. If he continues to play well, he’ll stick through most of the contract and make very good money. It’s a little less than he would likely make if he plays well under the tag in 2018 and hits free agency next year, but there is now zero risk from his play falling off or an injury derailing his career.
With that said, I think the most likely outcome is that Fuller plays 2018 on the franchise tag. The Bears can’t afford to lose him, but I don’t know that Pace is willing to commit long term after just one year, even if he can get a structure that limits the long term commitment. He’s proven extremely reluctant to sign big contracts that might harm the franchise down the road so far.
Now it’s your turn. What do you hope the Bears do with Fuller this offseason?