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Bernstein: Let Fuller Be Himself

By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) Just moments after general manager Phil Emery and the Bears selected Kyle Fuller at No. 14 overall last night, the Easy Story Express began chugging away, leaving the station quickly with too many people on board.

Some convenient facts made this entirely predictable, if unfair to the people involved.

Fuller hasn't even been able to have this special time for himself, instead ceding much of the spotlight to the presence of teammate Charles Tillman, who is set for one last season, re-signed in March with much fanfare and celebration for his victory-lap campaign.

Let's get this out of the way: I love Charles Tillman. Love him as a player, certain that he is the best cornerback in the history of the franchise, wowed by his unique ability to create turnovers that emerged concurrently with the NFL's new understanding of their significance. Assessed purely as the zone corner he was asked to be, he is one of the best to ever play.

And count me among those who like and respect him as much – if not more – for his tireless off-field charity efforts, running his own foundation like a real 501(c)(3) and not some vanity project. While other NFLers make news for dubious reasons, Tillman has long been a mensch and a genuine point of pride in Chicago sports.

But none of that entitles him to anything. If Fuller is better right now, he should start.

Sports fans can't ever get enough of the Jedi training myth, which casts an elder player as Obi-Wan Kenobi and the callow new arrival as Luke Skywalker, particularly when it involves a specific position. So begins an apprenticeship under the master, learning a new craft at his side until he proves worthy of stepping into the position.

"Emery's eyes on future by picking another Tillman," reads a column's sub-headline in today's Chicago Tribune.

It's facile to grab onto this because Tillman is about done, and Fuller possesses similar size and skills. Still, any corner drafted in the first round would likely have been saddled with the burden of being some kind of theoretical Tillman redux instead of merely a really exciting cornerback prospect. You know who else is rangy, athletic and versatile? Almost every talented NFL defensive back.

Early consensus seems to be that Fuller will be the third corner, covering slot receivers and pass-catching tight ends in the middle seams, with Tillman and Tim Jennings entrenched on either side. It's arguable that nickel corner is a de facto starting spot nowadays, with the proliferation of three-receiver sets in a league that's all about the passing game. Also informing this discussion is the likelihood that Tillman won't make it through the year without injury.

But there's no time or place for feelings, not in this game, not at this level. The moment training camp opens in July, the Bears should be committed to putting the best players on the field and not allowing incumbency to cloud judgment.

Nobody wants Paul Konerko starting over Jose Abreu -- that's is the point. Konerko is already having his moments in his cherry-on-top season, but in a much kinder, gentler sport that allows more easily for such sentimental transitions over a long, languid summer.

The Bears have no time for that, with just 16 games and a difficult early schedule. Emery knows his team has a reasonable chance to win the Super Bowl this year, and he's acting accordingly to reinforce a bad defense right now. It needs to be possible that Fuller can be a bigger part of that than seems widely presumed, pursuant to some story.

Rather than shoehorn this kid into a shadow by already asking him to be the next Tillman, let's just expect him to be the first Kyle Fuller.

Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.


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