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Chicago Bears

Bears training camp preview: cornerback

Bears cornerback Buster Skrine catches a ball during minicamp June 12 in Lake Forest. Skrine will be leaned upon to fill Bryce Callahan's absence at the nickel corner position.
Bears cornerback Buster Skrine catches a ball during minicamp June 12 in Lake Forest. Skrine will be leaned upon to fill Bryce Callahan's absence at the nickel corner position.

No Bears position group – and few anywhere in the league – is facing longer odds in repeating its 2018 production than the Bears cornerbacks.

Kyle Fuller was a first-team All-Pro and the NFL’s co-interception leader. Prince Amukamara and Bryce Callahan enjoyed career years, and Sherrick McManis and Kevin Toliver answered the next-man-up bell on the league’s No. 1 takeaway and pass defense.

But the group returns four of its top five contributors, with Callahan being replaced by free-agent signee Buster Skrine and sixth-round rookie Duke Shelley, in addition to welcoming fellow rookie Stephen Denmark and first-time secondary coach Deshea Townsend, the former two-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steeler who intercepted 21 passes across 13 NFL seasons.

Here are three burning questions for the Bears to answer leading up to training camp:

1. Are the Bears equipped to withstand the fickle trend of interceptions from one season to the next?

Over the course of his nine-year tenure, Lovie Smith’s Bears were as opportunistic as any team in football but only finished in the top five in interception percentage in back-to-back years once.

Similarly, over the past decade, only nine NFL teams have ranked in the top five in interception percentage in consecutive seasons: the 2009-10 Packers and Eagles, 2012-13 Bears, 2013-14 Bills, 2014-15 Bengals, 2015-16 Chiefs, 2016-17 Ravens and Chargers and the 2017-18 Bills.

What’s it all mean? Maybe nothing, and in Fuller and free safety Eddie Jackson, the Bears have proven takeaway artists, overseen by a new defensive coordinator whose top area of expertise is in the secondary. Still, often with taking the football away, it’s better to be lucky than good.

2. What effect will the Callahan-Skrine swap have on the unit?

Skrine hasn’t gotten his hands on balls as consistently as Callahan throughout his career. He also has gotten caught with his hands illegally on his man far more frequently but has played a lot more football because he’s been in the league four years longer and he’s been a lot more durable.

It’s possible the tale of the 2018 Bears would’ve been far different if Callahan, not his injury replacement, McManis, were covering Golden Tate on the game-winning touchdown catch in the wild-card round defeat to the Eagles. Of course, it’s also possible Skrine would’ve been beaten, or flagged, moving the Eagles closer to a touchdown plunge and taking more time off the clock that Mitch Trubisky used to acquit himself individually on the game’s final drive.

The point – and one of the primary reasons Skrine and not Callahan is in Chicago – is that the Bears don’t want to be in a position where they’re left wondering next time.

Before missing five combined games over his past three seasons, Skrine appeared in 87 games consecutively, when he built his track record of availability and feistiness.

The Bears expect that the best from Skrine, 30, still lies ahead, partially because he’s never been surrounded by a better group of defensive backs. There’s some projecting involved, but not nearly as much as there is with Shelley, a standout in his first offseason but learning nickel after almost exclusively playing on the boundaries at Kansas State.

3. Does this group include a potential hidden gem?

In Callahan and fellow ex-Bear Cre’Von LeBlanc, general manager Ryan Pace unearthed two undrafted diamonds in the rough, and there’s optimism internally that Toliver could be next entering his second season. The LSU product logged sporadic snaps this offseason with the starters and has prototype size and athleticism to become the first outside corner off the bench after Fuller and Amukamara.

It’ll be interesting to see how Denmark might fit in the puzzle because he’ll be competing against the more experienced Toliver, whom the Bears might have a more difficult time stashing on the practice squad, and also McManis, the team’s longest-tenured player and a special teams stalwart who cross-trained at safety in the spring.

Shelley is a fascinating long-term sleeper candidate to usurp Skrine, but how steep his learning curve is at a new position will be an important camp story to monitor because McManis is the only vet with nickel experience and tends to get exploited the longer he’s asked to play on defense.

The CB corps will be among the NFL’s best if … Fuller carries over his dynamite form of the past two seasons and Amukamara and Skrine can be steady, maximize their chances and hold up physically in their first age-30 campaigns.

The wheels will fall off if … Toliver and Shelley are pressed into action before they’re ready.

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