By Michael Fitzpatrick
The Chicago Bears were unable to make room for All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller with this year’s COVID-19-shrunken salary cap, leaving them with a hole opposite second-year starter Jaylon Johnson.
Last season, when Johnson went down with a shoulder injury, Duke Shelley and Kindle Vildor filled the backfield. Both are still with the team, and the Bears have made moves to add depth to the cornerback position. Tre Roberson, a collegiate quarterback and former CFL star, and Artie Burns are back from injury; and Desmond Trufant was signed from the Detroit Lions. None of whom are particularly inspiring options, though.
Shelley is listed at 5-foot-8, so his height will likely limit him to a slot corner role. Vildor allowed a 131.9 passer rating when targeted last year, per Pro Football Focus; granted he was a rookie pressed into duty, so it wasn’t an ideal situation for him but relying largely on Vildor next season seems unwise. Roberson has never played cornerback at the NFL level, and Trufant struggled mightily last year with the Lions while also missing 10 games due to injury. This could lead the Bears to look for a new cornerback with the No. 20 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
There is no shortage of options for Chicago if it opts to take that route, and the best option may be in its backyard. Greg Newsome II was the leader of Northwestern’s defense last season that ranked top in the country in pass efficiency defense and fifth in points per game. Newsome ranked in the 99 or 98 percentile in each of the following categories in 2020: yards per snap allowed, yards per target allowed, and passer rating allowed. He also had nine pass breakups in only six games. It’s not a stretch, at all, to say he was the best cornerback in college football last year. Newsome’s stock has skyrocketed during the draft process. He started out as an underrated prospect mostly because he wasn’t expected to leave school. He joined current Cleveland Browns linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. as the only players to leave Northwestern early for the draft during head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 15 years in Evanston, Illinois. Newsome does have some injury concerns, as he missed games during each of his three seasons, though none of the injuries were particularly serious.
Another highly-touted corner that has some injury baggage is Caleb Farley, out of Virginia Tech. Farley was a very good corner in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season. The lack of recent film put a lot of pressure on his Pro Day, which he missed recovering from back surgery. The back surgery is concerning from a Bears perspective. Last year, they took a chance with Johnson, who had multiple shoulder surgeries in college, and the shoulder injuries popped up again at the end of the year; having two corners with concerning injury histories might not be the route the Bears want to take.
Eric Stokes, from Georgia, could be another option for the Bears at No. 20. General manager Ryan Pace has picked a pair of Georgia defenders, Leonard Floyd (2016) and Roquan Smith (2018), in the top 10 recently and certainly trusts that program’s ability to develop NFL players on that side of the ball. Stokes ran a 4.25-second 40-yard dash at Georgia’s Pro Day, making him one of the fastest corners on the board. The biggest concern with Stokes is that he really only had one breakout season. Players like Newsome and Farley have more extensive college tape showing how dominant they play. Stokes is also likely going to be a zone-only corner at the next level, whereas Newsome and Farley showed the ability to excel in man and zone coverages.
On paper it may seem like the Bears have more pressing needs than cornerback, but in a division with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receivers Davante Adams and Justin Jefferson, the Bears’ ability to lock down opponents’ passing games will be key to their success in the near future.