Eddie Jackson

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.”

Bears attitude adjustment already apparent in first wave of free agents

Bears attitude adjustment already apparent in first wave of free agents

The first thing you notice is some swagger, some chips on the shoulders of the newest Bears, and while that doesn’t win any games in-season, let alone in March, it’s something of a positive for a team that’d had a lot of its swagger pained out of it over the past two years in particular.

Receivers Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson, tight end Trey Burton, backup quarterback Chase Daniel and kicker Cody Parkey all said the requisite niceties and platitudes on Thursday, all about how much they like the coaches, the organization, all that stuff.

But I’ve seen free agents come and go since real free agency started in 1993. All levels of players coming through, and they all say right stuff. There was something else with this bunch, though, and it wasn’t always there in the past. (More on that in a second.)

So there was Gabriel mentioning how Mitch Trubisky had texted him after Gabriel had signed, and Gabriel first piping in with, “How’s your deep ball?” And Trubisky was right back at Gabriel, one of the fastest players in the NFL, with, “Are you still fast?”

Best guess — they’ll get along just fine.

Gabriel’s first comment on impressions of coach Matt Nagy? Not about his football knowledge, his enthusiasm. No, it was: “Smooth dude, man,” Gabriel said. “I like his swag a little bit.”

Robinson was described by former Jacksonville and current Bears teammate cornerback Prince Amukamara as “a nightmare” to play against because he let defensive guys, even his own, know when he’d had them for lunch. As far as now, a very high bar has been set: “I think for me as a player, it's not my job to make Mitch's job easier, it's to make his job easy.”

Two points on why this comes with a touch more relevance in the case of a Bears team coming off a fourth straight NFC North basement finish:

First, because of what developed on the other side of the football when the likes of Akiem Hicks, Pernell McPhee (describing his style of football as “violent”) and Danny Trevathan came in, even rookie safety Eddie Jackson last year. They brought in attitudes from not just winning organizations, but more important, championship organizations. And they were good enough to walk the walk, even as they struggled through injuries.

The result was that in less than three full seasons, the Bears were a Top 10 defense. Attitudes can be infectious, for good or bad, and the right attitude with the right players made the defense a force, even with its injuries.

What the Bears secured in their first wave of free agents was five players all involved in points production — two wide receivers, a tight end, a kicker and a backup quarterback, whose two mission statements consist of being ready to play winning football if he’s needed and also to be a foundation pillar for the starter, in this case Trubisky.

What makes this a speck more interesting is that Trubisky will be the biggest factor in formation of the 2018-and-beyond Bears, and it was Trubisky whom Leonard Floyd and his defensive mates dubbed “Pretty Boy Assassin” last year because of Trubisky’s give-some-smack attitude anytime he lit up the No. 1 defense just running scout-team plays.

The second observation is that this wasn’t the case last year with Markus Wheaton, Quintin Demps, Marcus Cooper, Dion Sims and certainly not Mike Glennon, last year’s main free agency additions. Some of that’s obviously personality; Glennon and those guys are simply not swagger-smack kinds of guys, and that’s OK, as long as they play with attitude.

Last year’s group, just to use them as a case in point, came from decent programs. But the current top Bears additions include Super Bowl winners (Burton, Daniel as Drew Brees’ backup), a Super Bowl loser (Gabriel, painfully in the Atlanta Falcons’ collapse vs. New England) and a top wideout who had his dream derailed by injury and missed out on his team’s drive to within 2 minutes 48 seconds of a Super Bowl (Robinson).

And while Nagy and the organization are probably wise to counsel patience in the Bears’ recovery climb, the players aren’t seeing it that way.

“You can never underestimate how important youth is and guys who are willing to learn and willing to get better, but then also you look at the city,” Burton said. “They want another championship. They want to win. They want to be winners. You look at the other sports, the Bulls, the Blackhawks, the Cubs, the Cubs just won a couple years ago.

“The city's ready for another championship and like I said, they have a great quarterback, young quarterback, and an unbelievable head coach. They're aggressive and they're ready to win right now.”

Players flock to social media after Fox's dismissal

Players flock to social media after Fox's dismissal

For Bears fans, John Fox's termination couldn't have come a moment too soon. For young, core members of the team, though, the firing was a moment for reflection.   

Jordan Howard, who's only known NFL life with the former Bears head coach, thanked Fox for his unwavering belief. The running back has been a revelation since coming into the league, posting back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. 

Thunder wasn't the only one to chime in, though. Lightning, or better known as Tarik Cohen, also expressed gratitude: 

Another rook, Eddie Jackson, was appreciative of the coach's communication: 

Say what you want about Fox's record, which was a miserable 14-34, the guy seemed to have won over a few key pieces for the future.