Leonard Floyd

Sizing up the Bears' defensive depth chart with an eye on the NFL Draft

Sizing up the Bears' defensive depth chart with an eye on the NFL Draft

While most of the focus this offseason has been on the Bears’ re-vamped offense, Vic Fangio's group returns almost all of its starters from last year's group, which ranked 10th in total defense and a respectable 14th in defensive DVOA. But Fangio doesn't want to settle for just a "solid" or "good" defense in 2018, as he explained back in January: 

"We were 5-11," Fangio said. "If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins. There’s a lot of room for improvement there, a lot, and we need to do that."

The Bears will enter 2018 with a few standouts on this side of the ball, most notably Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Kyle Fuller. But those players still have room for improvement, too, as do guys like Leonard Floyd, Eddie Jackson and Jonathan Bullard, among others. 

That being said, the NFL Draft later this month will likely see the Bears add a number of players to Fangio's defense. So with that in mind, what does the current depth chart look like, and does that provide any clues about the direction in which Ryan Pace will go come late April?

Defensive end

1. Akiem Hicks
2. Roy Roberston-Harris

1. Jonathan Bullard

As things stand, the Bears at least need one more reserve defensive lineman to slide behind and/or compete with Bullard, the team’s 2016 third-round pick who showed flashes of starting to “get it” in Fangio’s defense last year. Mitch Unrein’s departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was somewhat surprising, given how highly Fangio and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers spoke of his play.

But let’s not confuse a defensive end opposite Hicks as a major “need,” given that Bullard in Year 3 should be better and, for as well-regarded as Unrein was, he only played 48 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps in 2017. Using a mid- or late-round pick on a defensive end may make sense later this month. 

Defesive tackle

1. Eddie Goldman
2. Rashaad Coward

Perhaps the Bears look to add a backup beyond Coward, who only played in one game last year, though John Jenkins — Goldman’s primary backup — was inactive for half of the season. 

But the biggest question here is when Goldman and the Bears will agree to a contract extension. The Bears have the cap space to sign Goldman to a second contract, and his pairing with Akiem Hicks was the top strength of Fangio’s defense in 2017. There’s no reason to think that partnership will be anything but excellent again going forward. 

“We haven’t got to that yet,” Pace said when asked about an extension for Goldman. “We’re aware of it, but we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

Outside linebacker

1. Leonard Floyd
2. Isaiah Irving

1. Aaron Lynch
2. Sam Acho

No position is a bigger red-line need than outside linebacker. There’s plenty of boom-or-bust potential here: If Floyd can stay healthy and take a step forward in his third year in the NFL, and if Lynch seizes his opportunity on a prove-it contract in a familiar defense, the Bears could have a solid pass rush in 2018. But those are two massive ifs. 

Floyd has missed 10 games his first two years in the league, and even when he’s been healthy he’s averaging one sack every 97 snaps (for some context, Vic Beasley is averaging one sack per 69 snaps in his three-year career; Pernell McPhee averaged one sack per 81 snaps from 2011-2017). The Bears drafted Floyd to be a pass rushing difference-maker; so far, he hasn’t been that. 

Lynch notched six sacks his rookie year in Fangio’s San Francisco 49ers defense, and followed that up with 6 1/2 sacks in 2015. But a substance abuse suspension and an ankle injury limited Lynch to just seven games in 2016, with only 1 1/2 sacks to his name. His 2017 wasn’t much better, with one sack in seven games as he had some conditioning and weight issues. 

“This free agency we didn't feel like there was a ton of outside linebackers but Aaron Lynch stood out in a number of ways,” Pace said. “He definitely has the traits to be a very productive pass rusher, you see signs of it and he's very comfortable in Vic's scheme. Vic knows him inside and out so to get him here on kind of a one-year contract kind of in a motivated state, we're excited about that. We think there's a lot of upside in that transaction.”

The Bears will need to draft at least one edge rusher, maybe multiple to try to fill out this position. Acho provides solid depth and leadership, hitting on a productive outside linebacker in the draft is a must for this group. 

Inside linebacker

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu

1. Nick Kwiatkoski
2. Jonathan Anderson

Christian Jones’ departure to the Detroit Lions felt sort of like Unrein’s to Tampa, as he too was a solid piece appreciate by the coaching staff and front office. That leaves, for now, Kwiatkoski to be the starter next to Trevathan. The Bears could certainly do worse, though Kwiatkoski missed two games in 2016 and five in 2017, and Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013. 

So there’s a need here for at least a backup, and potentially a starting-caliber player. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith both could be options with the eighth overall pick, as could drafting an inside linebacker with the Bears’ second-round pick. Or the Bears could opt for more of a reserve player profile and draft an inside linebacker in the fourth round (where Kwiatkoski was picked in 2016) or the fifth round. Inside linebacker is in a better position depth-wise than outside linebacker, but there’s still a need here. 

Outside cornerback

1. Kyle Fuller
2. Marcus Cooper

1. Prince Amukamara
2. Jonathan Mincy

Nickel cornerback

1. Bryce Callahan
2. Cre’von LeBlanc

The Bears reportedly have hosted or will host Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson for pre-draft visits, but don’t read too much into those. While the Bears guaranteed Fuller and Amukamara a combined $36 million in free agency (and will almost certainly wind up committing at least $37.5 million against the cap for Fuller over the next three years), they’d be foolish to not use their allocated pre-draft visits on two of the best cornerbacks in this year’s draft class. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, who could be a corner or a safety, will also reportedly be hosted by the Bears for a visit. 

While Amukamara and Fuller proved to be a solid cornerback tandem in 2017, they only combined for two interceptions, both of which were Fuller’s and came in the final month of the season. Drafting a playmaking cornerback would be a surprise — Fitzpatrick makes the most sense out of that group given he can play anywhere in the secondary — but it wouldn’t be totally out of left field, either. 

Maintaining the status quo of Amukamara and Fuller, with Cooper the backup and then a cornerback drafted maybe with a mid-round pick would make plenty of sense, though. Callahan remains a restricted free agent, but seems likely to return in 2018. 

“To have continuity at the two starting corner positions you know is important, and the safety position really too,” Pace said. “(For a) top 10 defense to maintain that continuity in the secondary was huge for us and it's really two separate moves. Independently getting Prince back and getting Kyle back, we feel good about our secondary. I don't think you can ever have enough corners, or enough pass rushers, but we feel good about that starting lineup for sure.”

Safety

1. Adrian Amos
2. DeAndre Houston-Carson

1. Eddie Jackson
2. Deon Bush

Pace’s quote above applies here — for the first time in a long time, the Bears can confidently say they’re comfortable with continuity at the safety position. Amos and Jackson played well off each other last year, and the loss of Quintin Demps to a season-ending injury in Week 3 didn’t negatively impact this unit. DeAndre Houston-Carson and Deon Bush are both mainstays on special teams — Houston-Carson played 64 percent of the Bears’ special teams snaps last year, while Bush played 53 percent of them. 

Perhaps there’s room for a safety to be a late-round pick, but that would be just for depth or special teams contributions. 

Special teams

Placekicker: Cody Parkey
Punter: Pat O’Donnell
Long snapper: Patrick Scales
Captain: Sherrick McManis

The Bears only guarantee O’Donnell $500,000 of his one-year, $1.5 million deal, according to Spotrac, suggesting they could look to bring in some competition for him via a late-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent. Scales was brought back after missing 2017 with a torn ACL. McManis was an important player to re-sign, and will be back for his seventh year in Chicago. 

“He’s one of our best special teams player,” Pace said. “He’s a valuable depth player on defense. But then also from a very critical standpoint, the intangibles he brings and the leadership he brings on a relatively young team. He’s a guy who has some skins on the wall, is a productive special teams player but also has excellent makeup.”

The six Bears most likely to make the 2019 Pro Bowl

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USA Today

The six Bears most likely to make the 2019 Pro Bowl

While no Bears were named to the initial NFC roster for the 2018 Pro Bowl, the future may not be bleak for this franchise's representation in Orlando. In the short-term, Akiem Hicks and Jordan Howard could be alternates to this season's Pro Bowl, but there are a handful of players currently on this roster that could make strong cases a season from now.

1. DL Akiem Hicks

Regardless of what defensive scheme the Bears have in 2018 -- 3-4 or 4-3 -- Hicks will be an anchor for whatever plans the team has on defense. He's been a force in 2017 with eight sacks and 15 tackles for a loss, a nice reward for Ryan Pace after he rewarded Hicks with a four-year contract extension in September. Don't be surprised if Hicks uses his initial Pro Bowl snub as part of his motivation to play at an even higher level in 2018. 

2. OL Cody Whitehair

Whitehair struggled at times in 2017, though perhaps that was due to him sliding between guard and center during training camp and then in the first few weeks of the regular season. But Whitehair is finishing this year strong, and he played close to a Pro Bowl level as a rookie in 2016. If he sticks at center in 2018, chances are he’ll make a strong case to earn a Pro Bowl bid in his third year in the league. 

3. RB Jordan Howard

Howard missed out on the Pro Bowl in 2018 despite being the NFC’s second-leading rusher with 1,069 yards through 14 games. Perhaps his low public profile played a role in that snub, with Los Angeles' Todd Gurley and New Orleans' Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara getting in over him. But Howard is one of the best running backs in the NFL, and if the Bears’ offense can evolve into something less conservative in 2018, chances are he won’t face loaded boxes as much as he has in 2017. According to NFL’s Next Gen stats, 41.2 percent of Howard’s runs have come with eight or more defenders in the box, the seventh-highest percentage among qualified running backs. 

4. RB Tarik Cohen

Cohen could make it as a running back and/or a return specialist in 2018, based on what we’ve seen from the explosive rookie in 2017. Cohen is already the Bears’ best offensive weapon, with 348 yards on 82 carries, 327 yards on 45 receptions and three offensive touchdowns. He’s returned a punt for a touchdown and had a 90-yard kick return called back on Saturday against the Detroit Lions. Whoever is coaching the Bears in 2018 will have a dynamic player on his hands; Cohen’s highlight-reel plays and engaging approach with the media will certainly keep him on many’s radar around the league. 

5. LB Leonard Floyd

Floyd wasn’t on track for a Pro Bowl bid in 2017 before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, but the flashes were there for the 2016 top-10 draft pick. The issue with Floyd’s nascent NFL career hasn’t been about his athleticism or potential, but with his ability to stay healthy, with concussions costing him a few games in 2016 and the knee injury wiping out nearly half a season in 2017. A healthy Floyd should be able to play at a Pro Bowl level in Year 3 with the Bears, but whether or not he can be healthy remains to be seen. 

6. QB Mitchell Trubisky

Trubisky’s 2017 numbers aren’t far off from those of most rookie quarterbacks in recent history, and it’s likely the No. 2 overall pick will improve in his second year as a pro. Whether that improvement will be great enough to get him into the Pro Bowl is another question, and may be more dependent on the offense he’s running and who he’s playing with in that offense. 

Projecting what holes the Bears will have to fill on their 2018 depth chart

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USA Today

Projecting what holes the Bears will have to fill on their 2018 depth chart

On Wednesday’s edition of the Under Center Podcast, John “Moon” Mullin and I broke down the Bears’ current depth chart, and which players on it will and won’t be back in 2018. 

The genesis of the pod, which you can listen to below, was with this color-coded depth chart:

 

Instead of a deep dive into each of these units, as we did on the podcast, this will more be a look at who those players are who are locked into roster spots in 2018. This should begin to paint a picture of where the Bears’ positions of need are heading into the offseason. 

OFFENSE
 
QB: Mitchell Trubisky
RB: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen
FB: 
WR: Cameron Meredith, Kevin White
TE: Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen
LT: Charles Leno Jr.
LG: Josh Sitton, Eric Kush
C: Cody Whitehair
RG: Kyle Long, Eric Kush
RT: 

The first point to note with any of these projections is we don’t know what the Bears offense and defense will look like in 2018 with a potentially different coaching staff in place (i.e., if that coaching staff wants a fullback). 

The biggest need on this side of the ball, clearly, is wide receiver. Meredith and White are both coming off injuries (for White, three injuries in three years), and it’s fair to wonder if they can be as productive as the Bears expected them to be this season. 

The top five receivers currently scheduled to hit free agency are Davante Adams (744 yards, 7 TDs), Jarvis Landry (699 yards, 6 TDs), Marqise Lee (637, 3 TDs), Paul Richardson (592 yards, 5 TDs) and Sammy Watkins (528 yards, 6 TDs). Dontrelle Inman and Kendall Wright could play their way into contracts with the Bears in 2018 — both are due to hit free agency, too — with good play down the stretch. Inman, especially, has quickly developed chemistry with Trubisky since being acquired from the Los Angeles Chargers in October. 

The Bears could also potentially see an upgrade at right tackle, depending on how they’ve evaluated Bobby Massie’s season and his potential cap savings if he’s released ($5.6 million, according to Spotrac). There will be a need to add depth behind these starting linemen — though if Kush returns healthy from a training camp ACL injury, that would be a boost. 

Not all of these offensive players are "core" guys, but Trubisky, Howard, Cohen, Sitton, Whitehair and Long should fit that designation. 
 
DEFENSE

DE: Akiem Hicks, Jonathan Bullard
DT: Eddie Goldman
OLB: Leonard Floyd
ILB: Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski
CB: 
S: Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos

Whether the Bears’ 2018 defense is a 3-4 (as run by Vic Fangio) or a 4-3 (as run by a different defensive coordinator) remains to be seen, but these eight players would fit any scheme. 

The clear need is at cornerback, with Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara becoming free agents next year. Marcus Cooper hasn’t played up to his contract and would save the Bears $4.5 million in cap room if he were released (again, per Spotrac). Nickel corners Bryce Callahan (a restricted free agent) and Cre’von LeBlanc could be back, as could special teams ace Sherrick McManis (an unrestricted free agent). Finding an upgrade at this position is a definite “must-do” for the Bears’ offseason checklist.

But so is adding at least one go-to edge rusher, regardless of scheme fit. Pernell McPhee and Willie Young aren’t guaranteed to be back, given their relative lack of production (largely in McPhee’s case), their injury histories (in both players’ cases) or their age (in Young’s case). But if the Bears pencil in Hicks and Floyd as go-to pass-rushers in 2018, they still need a third. 

The good news is Jackson and Amos proved to be a solid safety duo in 2017, and that should carry over to 2018 (Quintin Demps could return, but perhaps as a backup). Goldman has been one of the Bears’ best defensive players this year and could be in line for a contract extension in the offseason. Trevathan is a rock on this defense, too, and is another player on whom a 2018 defense can be built. 

The "core" guys in this group: Hicks, Goldman, Trevathan and Floyd. 
 
SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: 
Punter: 
Long snapper: Andrew DePaola, Patrick Scales

Pat O’Donnell will be a free agent, while the Bears’ revolving door of kickers in 2017 isn’t likely to produce a long-term solution in 2018.