Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller

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Gabriel: Assessing Bears' CB Situation

The Bears need Buster Skrine -- or perhaps Duke Shelley? -- to shine at the nickel spot.

Greg Gabriel
May 30, 2019 - 4:12 pm
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(670 The Score) As the Bears continue to work through OTAs with their focus on building continuity and fostering development, they do so with a starting cornerback combination in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara that's as good as any duo in the NFL.

While those two have solid cohesion, there will be a new look behind them and several individuals battling for spots on the 53-man roster. 

The Bears let nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan leave for the Broncos in free agency, instead choosing to replace him with 30-year-old Buster Skrine, who spent the past four seasons with the Jets. Callahan was a good player, but the Bears were concerned with his durability, as he had injury issues over the past several seasons, including missing the final three regular-season games and the team's playoff loss in 2018 with a broken foot.

Like Callahan, Skrine is on the smaller side at 5-foot-9. He may not be as good of a cover cornerback as Callahan, but Skrine has other advantages. He's more physical, plays the ball well and has stayed healthy.

Skrine has never played on a defense of the Bears' caliber, so the team's hope is his level of play will rise with more talent around him. It needs to, because the nickel cornerback played about 80 percent of the defensive downs for the Bears in 2018. Essentially, Skrine will be like a 12th starter, and it's important for the nickel cornerback to play well for the Bears' defense to reach its potential.

The Bears didn't have a reliable backup for Callahan in 2018. When he went down, they were forced to play special teams ace Sherrick McManis, who had seldom been asked to play such a big defensive role in his seven-year tenure in Chicago. McManis played fine, but his performance wasn't at a championship standard. And it was McManis who was beat on the Eagles' game-winning touchdown in their wild-card round win against the Bears on Jan. 6.

In an effort to have better depth, the Bears drafted Kansas State cornerback Duke Shelley in the sixth round in April. On tape, Shelley is quick, fast and aggressive while showcasing good ball skills. One reason he lasted until the sixth round is he's short for the position, as he's listed as 5-foot-9. Several NFL teams won't play cornerbacks shorter than 5-foot-10, and that's a preference for many others. What helps Shelley is his arms are 31 1/4 inches, which helps him play taller than he measures. If he plays like he does on his tape from Kansas State, he could challenge Skrine for the nickel cornerback spot.

Kevin Toliver made the Bears as an undrafted free agent last season and should earn a reserve cornerback spot. He has great size and good speed and athleticism. He played in 15 games in 2018, starting one when Amukamara was injured. Toliver held his own and should be improved with some experience under his belt.

Another undrafted free agent who came on strong in 2018 is Michael Joseph, who spent the season on the practice squad. He played Division-III ball and was raw, but his natural traits are intriguing. He has size at 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds and good athleticism. He could be a playmaker in training camp and will challenge for a roster spot. I thought Joseph outplayed Toliver in training camp in 2018, but the coaches felt he wasn't ready for the jump from D-III to the NFL so soon.

The Bears also drafted Valdosta State cornerback Stephen Denmark in April. A converted receiver, he has only played on the defensive side of the ball for two years. His physical traits are rare. He's 6-foot-3, 222 pounds and fast. He has an eye-popping vertical jump of more than 40 inches. On tape, Denmark is an aggressive player. 

Still, he will be a work in progress as he transitions from Division-II ball to the NFL. If Denmark is to make the final roster, he'll have to do so by impressing on special teams. That would likely mean he'd have to beat out McManis, which is a really tough task. McManis is one of the better special teamers in the entire NFL. I feel Denmark could take the route that Joseph did last year, spending the season on the practice squad.

Overall, the Bears' cornerback position is deep and talented. The hope is the newcomers can be as good as the players whom they replaced. If that's the case, the Bears' cornerbacks will be as good as any group in the NFL.

Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who's an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.