After Kyle Fuller picked off three passes in his first three games as a pro, he set himself on a path with his peers in the most loaded draft class of the last 25 years. He appeared to belong with the Clowneys and Macks and Beckhams of the 2014 draft.
But inconsistent play, and an injury that cost him his entire 2016 season, marred his next three years, including the rest of his rookie season. Then in 2017, playing for a new contract, Fuller had his best season as a pro even if he didn’t put up gaudy interception totals.
Fuller, a 5-foot-1, 190-pound corner who plays with physicality and an edge, looked rejuvenated in coverage. He tackled well in run support and buoyed a Chicago Bears defense that had so many concerns about its secondary, general manager Ryan Pace signed two veterans in free agency to be starters.
Last week, the Bears marked Fuller, slated for free agency, with the transition tag—importantly not the franchise tag. This gives Pace until mid-July to negotiate a new long-term deal with the right to match any deal Fuller is offered by another team.
It locks the Bears into a salary just under $13 million, a savings of about $2 million from the franchise tag, but this isn’t about the money, at least not the one-year money.
This is about market value for the Bears. How much does the league covet Fuller, a 26-year-old former first-round pick with just one good season in his last three? Using the transition tag rather than the franchise tag signals a willingness on the part of the Bears to acquiesce to the market. If a team wants to blow him out of the water with an offer, he’s free to leave.
What Chicago doesn’t want to do is overpay him if it doesn’t have to. What if no team comes in with a long-term deal? The Bears don’t have to feel they’re competing with anyone and can offer Fuller less money, or more team-friendly terms as part of the contract.
The franchise, loaded with cap space this offseason, doesn’t care about the difference in paying Fuller $13 million or $15 million in 2018. The Bears have the room to absorb either hit, but they do care about what they are paying him in 2019 and 2020, at least relative to what he produces on the field.
Using the transition tag allows the market to set the price. Few suitors, or lower deals than Fuller wanted to sign, would give the Bears the leverage to insist Fuller take less than he may otherwise command. On the franchise tag, where teams would have to give up multiple picks to get him, there isn’t the same kind of action on offers from other teams. No one thinks Fuller should be signed to a Darrelle Revis deal and multiple first-round picks.
But a team may believe he’s worth $11 or $12 million a year for the next four years. If one does, the Bears can match the deal and have their guy locked in. If no team believes that, Chicago gets to say “Look, you tried to find a better deal. It’s not out there. Sign this one.”
Fuller, on the other hand, may be best situated to play 2018 in what should be a solid defense, build on his performance last year, and command a mega-deal in 2019. He can simply play on the transition tag, much as Kirk Cousins did with the franchise tag, while building enough value to cash in in free agency.
He either gets the blockbuster contract from the Bears, forces them to use the franchise tag on him — which is a blockbuster number in a one-year shot — or Chicago lets him walk to get that deal elsewhere.
For Fuller, the tag is a win-win. He gets a huge raise in 2018, still has a chance to get a big deal this offseason from another team, or he could sign a long-term extension with the transition tag as a bar for where a contract goes.
He should also know the difference in tags means the Bears are willing to let him walk at the right price, which means he must make sure his agent is on the horn to cornerback-needy teams around the league, reminding them he’s technically available.
The deal makes sense for both sides. Fuller has to divine if long-term security at his market value is worth taking over another year driving his value up in 2018, playing on a one-year deal that guarantees him a huge dollar figure. The risk is he will get hurt again — that long-term deal would be off the table in the 2019 offseason.
Each side can protect itself here, but the Bears clearly want to work out a deal. Fuller should want that too. If they do reach a deal, the tag will simply be the vehicle for a long-term contract. If they don’t, that’s an option the Bears left themselves open to.
Whether that was a good idea would be based on how well Fuller plays for someone else.