Bears Grades: Defense fell short of expectations in 2019

Bears Grades: Defense fell short of expectations in 2019

The Bears were supposed to field a potentially generational defense in 2019. Instead, the unit was an above-average group that led Chicago to an 8-8 record. They finished eighth in the league in yards allowed per game and were fourth in points allowed per game (18.6). 

In an ordinary year with an even ordinary offense to complement this defense, the Bears probably would've been a playoff team. But it would be unfair to say Khalil Mack & Co. were anywhere near as dominant as they were in 2018.

Here's Part 2 of our Season Grades. Check out Part 1 (offense) here.

Defensive Line: B

All things considered, the Bears' defensive line played well in 2019. The heart and soul of the front-four, Akiem Hicks, played just 191 snaps this season because of an elbow injury suffered in Week 5 against the Raiders. He returned for the Packers game in Week 15 but was nowhere near 100%. That said, when Hicks was healthy, he was as dominant as ever.

Eddie Goldman had the kind of season we've come to expect from the fifth-year nose tackle. He was strong and stout in the middle of the Bears' defensive line and allowed Chicago's second-level defenders to run free and make plays. His box score doesn't tell the whole story of how valuable he is to this defense; it never has. He finished 2019 as the Bears' eighth-highest graded defender via Pro Football Focus, but his true value extends beyond the analytics. Chicago's defense would be in big trouble if it lost Goldman for an extended period of time.

Bilal Nichols, Nick Williams and Roy Robertson-Harris all logged between 445 and 544 snaps in 2019 and proved to be solid, even if unspectacular. 

Williams was one of the feel-good stories from 2019. The 29-year-old free-agent-to-be enjoyed a career-year with six sacks and at times seemed unblockable as an interior penetrator. 

“You want to show, especially teams that cut you, that just put you out,” Williams said, “you want to show them that they made a mistake. I think I did that this year. I played some good football and did some good things on the football field.”

Linebackers: C+

The 2019 season began with such high expectations for a linebacker group that featured the likes of Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. But much like the Bears' season as a whole, they underachieved.

It starts with Mack, who's held to a different standard. He finished the season with the highest Pro Football Focus grade on the team, which suggests he had a good year. But he was brought to Chicago to be an impact pass-rusher, and his 8.5 sacks this year didn't cut it. It was his least-productive season since his rookie year in 2014.

This isn't to say Mack was a total disappointment. He's still the present and future of this defense. But if the Bears want to be a Super Bowl contender, Mack has to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He wasn't that in 2019.

What's worse, however, was the lack of sack production from his running-mate. Floyd has been a big letdown since coming to Chicago as the ninth overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. He was supposed to be a freakishly athletic pass-rusher, but after four seasons and just 18.5 career sacks, the ship has sailed on that scouting report. He had a career-low three sacks in 2019.

The most bizarre situation of this season was Smith's unexplained deactivation prior to Week 4's Vikings game. His play was already falling below expectations and he didn't start turning the corner until Week 10 against the Lions. Unfortunately, Smith's year ended early because of a torn pec in Week 14. He was trending in the right direction, however, and with a full offseason to make a full recovery, he should be one of the centerpieces of the defense again in 2020.

Trevathan, who's scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, was playing up to his career-standard prior to his gruesome arm injury in Week 10. It's unlikely he'll be back in 2020, and it's in large part because of the emergence of Nick Kwiatkoski, who shined as a starter once his number was called.

Kwiatkoski is set to hit the open market as well, but he has to be a priority for general manager Ryan Pace. He was the Bears' highest-graded linebacker aside from Mack. He finished 2019 fourth on the team in tackles, which is remarkable considering he didn't play meaningful reps until Week 10. Had he started all season, he would've led the team in that category by a wide margin.

And let's not forget the late-season performance of Kevin Pierre-Louis, who filled in for Smith in Week 14 after he exited with his pec injury. Pierre-Louis finished the last three games as one of the most violent and active Bears defenders. He wasn't perfect and had some lapses in judgment (see his running into the punter penalty in Week 16 against the Chiefs), but he finished 2019 with four strong games and an end-of-year grade of 90.5 from Pro Football Focus. 

Pierre-Louis, like Kwiatkoski and Trevathan, is a free agent this offseason.

Cornerbacks: C+

Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara were fine in 2019. They really were. But what they didn't do was create turnovers at the same rate they did in 2018, and that regression was a big part of the Bears' letdown this season. 

Fuller's interception total dropped from seven to three, while Amukamara dipped from three to zero. That's a difference of seven turnovers, which is significant considering the Bears as a team managed just nine interceptions all year.

Amukamara is one of the more likely veterans to be a salary-cap casualty this offseason. The Bears will save $9 million by cutting ties and it's a move that makes sense, even if Amukamara's proven to be a strong presence in Chicago's secondary. He simply wasn't a difference-maker in 2019, and at 30 years old, his best years are likely behind him.

Kevin Tolliver, Jr., who joined the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2018, had a productive second season with the team. He logged 175 snaps and gave Chicago a glimpse at what he could do as a potential starter in 2020. The Bears could do a lot worse than Tolliver, who ended 2019 with 13 tackles and two pass breakups.

Rookie Duke Shelley played just eight snaps on defense in what was an incomplete rookie season for the sixth-rounder.

Safeties: B

Much like the cornerback position, the Bears' safeties were solid in 2019 with the exception of turnovers. Eddie Jackson was especially disappointing in this department. He managed just two interceptions after snagging six in 2018. Jackson had three defensive touchdowns in 2018 but had zero this year. 

Jackson's reputation led to a Pro Bowl nod despite his play probably not warranting it. Consider it a down year for him. His resume has enough high-end production to erase any concerns that he isn't the player Bears fans thought he was entering the season.

One of the best value players on the Bears' defense this year was Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract with Chicago in free agency last offseason. He rewarded Pace's decision by having the third-most tackles on defense, two interceptions and a defensive touchdown.

Clinton-Dix was the Bears' second-highest graded defender via PFF this season and will be a priority contract for Pace to get done early in the offseason. Otherwise, they'll be left searching for his replacement much like last year when they signed Clinton-Dix to fill the void left by Adrian Amos.

Jackson and Clinton-Dix were ironmen this season. They played the second and third-most snaps of all Bears' defenders in 2019.

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Is Marcus Mariota the most logical QB target for the Bears?

Is Marcus Mariota the most logical QB target for the Bears?

Chicago Bears fans are sick and tired of the quarterback conversation surrounding this team as we enter the most important two month stretch of the offseason. My Twitter timeline (and vicious replies) are evidence of that. 

Duly noted.

That said, it's an unavoidable truth that GM Ryan Pace has no choice but to do something at quarterback in free agency or the NFL Draft. The most diehard Mitch Trubisky fan has to admit that. The former second overall pick hasn't developed into a franchise player through three seasons under center, and while the optimist would argue there's still time for him to become that guy, the realist is who must prevail when it comes to roster construction.

Marcus Mariota may be the perfect compromise. He doesn't have a resume that will immediately threaten Trubisky in 2020, but his sneaky upside combined with his youth and overall skill set is an ideal combination that could make him a long-term answer if Trubisky fails in the short-term.

According to Sports Illustrated, Chicago -- and coach Matt Nagy -- would be an ideal destination for Mariota, even if there's an inherent conflict of interest because both Mariota and Trubisky are represented by the same agent.

There are coaches out there—cough, Chicago, cough—who could slide him in easily under the guise that Mariota is a high-quality backup and develop him into a weapon under center who could take over when the starter falters.

Mariota, like Trubisky, hasn't lived up to the hype that he entered the NFL with back in 2015 when he was the second overall pick of the Titans. He's logged 61 starts and a career record of 29-32. He's completed just under 63% of his 1,110 career pass attempts and has 76 touchdown passes to 44 interceptions.

His stat sheet isn't impressive. His on-field play, at times, hasn't been, either. But he'd be an ideal reclamation project that the Bears can sell as the perfect backup even if the hope is for him to emerge as a starter.

There’s an advantage for QB-needy teams here who don’t want to deal with the public courting of Tom Brady, who don’t want to sacrifice mobility by signing Philip Rivers, who don’t want to roll the dice on every snap by signing Jameis Winston, and who don’t have the trade capital or cap space to go after someone like Nick Foles or Derek Carr.

Chicago won't be able to get into a bidding war for the bigger names like Tom Brady or even Teddy Bridgewater because of their limited cap space. Mariota won't command nearly as much to sign, and he's likely to get nothing more than a one-year commitment from a team hoping he can be like the guy who replaced him, Ryan Tannehill.

Of all the quarterbacks who've been pegged as a possible option for the Bears, Mariota feels like the most logical and, more importantly, cheaper targets who realistically could be lining up as the Chicago's starter by Week 4 of the 2020 season.

Bears should pay close attention to TE Cole Kmet at NFL Combine

Bears should pay close attention to TE Cole Kmet at NFL Combine

The 2020 NFL Combine kicks off on February 23, and the Bears will be one of 32 teams in attendance poking and prodding the 337 prospects who will try to run, jump and lift their way to a higher NFL draft grade.

General manager Ryan Pace will do his due diligence on all the players participating, but the Bears are without a first-round pick (again) and as a result, Pace's focus will be tailored to the cluster of prospects who are most likely to slide into Day 2. Chicago has two second-rounders and can upgrade the roster with two potential starters.

One player who should be at or near the top of the Bears' wish list is Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet. According to former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, Kmet would be a perfect fit for Chicago in the second round and the prospect they should pay the closest attention to at the combine.

The Bears' biggest need on offense is tight end. There are several guys who would fit well in Matt Nagy's scheme, including Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, but why not aim for the best TE in his class in Kmet?

Kmet certainly checks most of the boxes for an NFL starting tight end. He ended 2019 with 43 receptions for 515 yards and six touchdowns, numbers that aren't a true reflection of his upside as a receiver in the pros. He'll be a classic case of a player who has a more productive NFL career than he had in college.  He's a good athlete who has upside as an inline blocker, too, even though he needs to get stronger to be a truly reliable player in the run game.

Even with some of the deficiencies in Kmet's game, he'd be a massive upgrade over the tight ends currently on the Bears roster like Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen and Jesper Horsted. He's a virtual lock to come off the board in the second round, so if Pace wants him in Chicago next season, he won't be able to wait long to draft him. In fact, it could require using the Bears' first pick -- No. 43 overall -- to lock him up.