Bears

What options do the Bears have left in the edge rusher free agency market? 

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USA Today

What options do the Bears have left in the edge rusher free agency market? 

The NFL is deep into its second wave of free agency, with nearly all of the top names available off the market. The Bears got their (relative) heavy lifting done last week, signing five key players: Running back Mike Davis, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, interior offensive lineman Ted Larsen, slot cornerback Buster Skrine and safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix. 

All five of those players filled holes, from depth/rotational guys (Davis, Patterson and Larsen) to expected starters (Skrine and Clinton-Dix). 

The Bears, reportedly, agreed to bring back punter Pat O’Donnell on a two-year contract, checking off another box there. But Ryan Pace’s work isn’t done yet, with one more significant need yet to be addressed: A rotational edge rusher. 

Where things stand

Right now, the Bears’ outside linebacker depth chart is topped by Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts, with Canadian Football League signee James Vaughters perhaps getting a look there, too. 

Aaron Lynch, 2018’s incumbent rotational edge rusher, hasn’t been linked to the Bears in free agency and is reportedly taking visits elsewhere:

Lynch played in 13 games last year and did reasonably well on a one-year prove-it contract, notching three sacks and an interception while providing a consistent edge-setting presence against the run. He played 40 percent of the Bears’ snaps in those 13 games, including starts against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, when Mack was inactive. 

If Lynch isn’t coming back, his usage last year is a decent blueprint for what the Bears want out of a third edge rusher — playing somewhere between one-third and one-half of the snaps in a given game in which Mack and Floyd are healthy, with the ability to step in and effectively start, too. 

Who’s still available?

Justin Houston, Ezekiel Ansah are the biggest names still out there. A few other options: Nick Perry, Cassius Marsh, Shane Ray, Connor Barwin and Pernell McPhee. 

We’ll start with Houston. He’s 30 and had nine sacks in 2018 and played 80 percent of the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive snaps in the 12 games he played. Would he be willing to take a decreased role to come to Chicago?

If he would, Houston would be a tremendous fit. The Bears likely have somewhere around $13 million in cap space, per Spotrac (consider that a rough estimate), and while they won’t spend it all that’s likely enough room to fit Houston in on a one-year deal. Again, the question is more if Houston would be willing to sign with a team that doesn’t have a No. 1 or No. 2 edge rushing opening. 

Ansah would seem to be less likely to fit with the Bears, especially if he’s seeking a one-year prove-it deal after only appearing in seven games in 2018 (he still had four sacks, which given the circumstances, is rather impressive). He had a dozen sacks in 2017, and while he turns 30 in May he could do well to rebuild his value somewhere that can offer him a full-time role. 

A viable ex-Packer would be Nick Perry, who was released by Green Bay in the wake of their dual Smith-based edge rusher signings (Za’Darius and Preston). Perry turns 29 in April and slowed considerably in 2018, only managing 1 1/2 sacks in nine games. As his 11-sack 2016 gets further in the rearview mirror, perhaps he could fit as a rotational guy for the Bears. 

Before the Bears traded for Mack, there was a thought the team could have interest in acquiring Ray from the Denver Broncos, especially after the two teams held joint practices in Colorado in mid-August. Ray played in 11 games in 2018, had just one sack and was a healthy scratch for the final three games of the season. While he’s only entering his age-26 season, more than half his 14 career sacks came in 2016 (eight). Ray, though, fits closer to the profile of Lynch — an oft-injured guy in his mid-20’s who could use a change of scenery. 

Neither Barwin (one sack) or McPhee (no sacks) did much in rotational roles in 2018 and are each on the wrong side of 30. A reunion with McPhee could at least produce some fun media sessions in the Bears’ locker room. 

What about the draft?

Pace is a “best player available” guy, which is why he waited until the sixth round to draft his first edge rusher — Fitts — a year ago, even when there was a glaring need opposite Floyd (one, thanks to Jon Gruden, that was ultimately filled by Mack). It’s rare for a quality edge rusher to make it to the third round, let alone later: Since 2013, only 22 of the 147 outside linebackers and defensive ends taken in the third through seventh rounds have amassed at least 10 sacks. The most sacks a player picked 87th or lower in 2018 (the Bears’ first pick in this year’s draft is No. 87) was three, coming from Detroit’s Da’Shawn Hand. 

Perhaps Pace could unearth a projectable edge rusher with one of the Bears’ draft picks, but that’s not an easy task. Most anyone with NFL-ready pass rushing skills are off the board by the end of the second round. 

So what's next?

It would make sense for the Bears to sign an outside linebacker at some point in the coming weeks, given how unproven Irving and Fitts are behind Mack and Floyd. But it’s not like Pace is going to sign someone with whom he doesn’t have conviction just to fill a hole — again, he didn’t last year, when the Bears would’ve gone into Week 1 with Floyd, Lynch and Sam Acho as their edge rushing rotation. 

The Bears have some other needs to address lower down their depth chart — another tight end and cornerback, perhaps, as well as guys who will head into training camp competing for spots largely via special teams. Pace could still sign a kicker to add to their growing competition, and the team does need a long snapper with Patrick Scales now an unrestricted free agent. 

An edge rusher, though, would be the only move left out there that could move the needle before the draft. We’ll see if that happens. 

No extra ’19 draft pressure on Bears GM Ryan Pace? Don’t believe it.

No extra ’19 draft pressure on Bears GM Ryan Pace? Don’t believe it.

There is never – well, pretty much never – a time without at least some modicum of personal pressure in the NFL, whether it’s to win, develop, save money, whatever.

But some times are more pressurized than others or involve different pressures. So it is for Bears GM Ryan Pace.

Because one of the realities of sport, or lots of other endeavors for that matter, is that it is so often more difficult to stay at the top than to reach it a first time. Complacency can set in after success; opponents and other forces can chip away at what worked on the way up. Worst (or best) of all, expectations rise.

It is arguably much easier to go from three wins to six than to go from, say, 12 to 13.

When Pace was hired to replace Phil Emery, there were the obvious pressures: first-time GM, need to overhaul turn around a roster and culture, all that stuff. But expectations weren’t outlandish; short of abject collapse or some aberrant new level of dysfunction, the true expectations were not to reach the playoffs in 2015, for instance.

And every indication was that Pace was going to get a second coaching hire anyway if bridge-hire John Fox didn’t work out. Pace got an extension with the same win-loss record that got Fox fired.

The pressure then ratcheted up several notches with Pace investing the draft capital he did in Mitchell Trubisky, then hiring his own head coach in Matt Nagy. A consultant and senior management weren’t directing things in either of those cases. Those are on him.

So then Pace’s coach and quarterback went and won 12 games and were within a kicking malfunction of winning a playoff game. Accordingly, with all that, they sent the franchise into a draft (Pace’s first) without top-10 picks in early draft rounds. Pace has not gone into a draft holding fewer than two selections in the top 45 (2017).

This year, with the added expectations from a 12-4 season, Pace starts with none in the first 86.

Pace said this week that the pressure feels the same to him, and it probably does; no one puts more pressure on Pace than he does on himself.

But the expectations are there, or more accurately, the overall need is there, definitely there. After the better part of a decade without any, the Bears have some organizational momentum now and losing that invites dark thoughts.

“I feel like I feel like with fewer picks and with later picks, the onus is on us as scouts to hit on these picks, and to keep this momentum that we’ve got,” Pace said. “I feel like we have this momentum. To keep this momentum going…we need to nail this draft.”

But what if they don’t?

There are no unimportant drafts, or seasons, for that matter. But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world that is the NFL, getting it right does matter. A lot.

The Oakland Raiders went 12-4 in 2016 largely on the fruits of GM Reggie McKenzie draftees Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack. McKenzie was Pro Football Writers of America’s NFL executive of the year and had a contract extension. (Pace received both of those in a 14-month span.)

The Raiders fell off to 6-10 in 2017, fired coach Jack Del Rio and hired Jon Gruden, who traded away Cooper and Mack, and had McKenzie fired a week after the Raiders were the first AFC team mathematically eliminated from the 2018 playoffs.

Much closer to home, the Bears went to the NFC Championship game in 2010 with a team built by then-GM Jerry Angelo. They again stood atop the NFC North at 7-3 in 2011, at which point Jay Cutler broke his thumb and the Bears lost five of their final six.
Angelo was fired two days after the final ’11 game – a win at Minnesota, the last one of those before finishing 2018 with a victory up there.

Emery was fired after three seasons of decline from 10 to 8 to 5 wins from 2012-14.

Pace is in less than zero danger. Indeed, if the Fox hiring process vs. that of Nagy’s taught Bears management anything, it would start with the presumption that, left to his own devices, Pace is better at picking head coaches than a lot of other people around Halas Hall.

And the fact that 10 of the 12 Bears Pro Bowl’ers or alternates were Pace draft picks or trade/free agent acquisitions suggests that he has improved exponentially from first-draft selections of Kevin White and Hroniss Grasu.

Now all he has to do is do it again. And then again. And then….

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A Bears-centric draft guide to every running back in this year's NFL Draft

A Bears-centric draft guide to every running back in this year's NFL Draft

No position carries more interest and importance than running back as the Bears head into the 2019 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday in Nashville but won’t get underway at Halas Hall until Friday. While general manager Ryan Pace said the Bears don’t need to draft a running back, given all the scouting the Bears have done on players at that position, it feels like a foregone conclusion that they will take one sometime before the end of Saturday. 

So with all the focus on this one position, NBC Sports Chicago compiled the big boards of eight major draft gurus/websites to put a wisdom-of-the-crowd spin on a running back ranking system. Sources used for these rankings: Josh Norris’ top 200, Pro Football Focus’ top 250, Dane Brugler’s top 100, Daniel Jeremiah’s top 50, Gil Brandt’s top 150 and Danny Kelly’s top 100, as well as complete big boards by ESPN and CBS. 

The results divide this class of running backs into a number of tiers based on where the Bears pick, which right now is Nos. 87, 126, 162, 222 and 238. Here’s what we came up with:

Tier 1: No chance

Member: Josh Jacobs, Alabama

Average rank: 28.1
Highest: 8 (Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com)
Lowest: 60 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 0

Every one of these eight rankings had Jacobs as its highest-rated running back. There’s a chance the Oakland Raiders use the 24th pick — which the Bears sent to them in the Khalil Mack trade — on Jacobs Thursday night. 

Tier 2: Dream scenarios with No. 87

Members: David Montgomery, Iowa State; Miles Sanders, Penn State

Montgomery average rank: 59.5
Highest: 43 (Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com)
Lowest: 79 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 0

 

Sanders average rank: 64.0
Highest: 45 (Gil Brandt, NFL.com)
Lowest: 86 (CBS)
Not ranked: 0

The dream scenario for the Bears would be having one of these guys be available when they go on the clock with the 87th pick Friday night. These two guys are comfortably the second- and third-best running backs in this year’s class when compiling all these rankings, and there’s a good chance a few teams ahead of the Bears will want a running back before that 87th selection. 

Tier 3: Realistic at No. 87

Members: Damien Harris, Alabama; Darrell Henderson, Memphis; Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic

Harris average rank: 86.0
Highest: 55 (Dane Brugler, The Athletic)
Lowest: 135 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 1 (Jeremiah)

Henderson average rank: 87.0
Highest: 69 (Danny Kelly, The Ringer)
Lowest: 119 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 1 (Jeremiah)

 

Singletary average rank: 91.7
Highest: 55 (Josh Norris, Rotoworld)
Lowest: 139 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 1 (Jeremiah)

 

We start to see some variance with these three running backs. Norris has Singletary (55) and Henderson (74) ranked ahead of Sanders (75), with Harris (103) lagging behind; Brandt has Harris (88) and Henderson (95) in his top 100, with Singletary (112) out of it. 

As with anyone in the draft, it only takes one team to like you, and while it’d be a shock if any of these three players jumped Jacobs, one could be drafted ahead of Montgomery or Sanders on Friday night (there’s been some buzz about Henderson climbing up draft boards lately, for what it’s worth). Still, if the Bears are targeting a running back with their third-round pick, some or all of these guys could very well be in Pace’s cloud. 

Tier 4: Options at No. 126 or No. 162

Members: Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M; Justice Hill, Oklahoma State; Bryce Love, Stanford; Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma; Tony Pollard, Memphis; Elijah Holyfield, Georgia; Dexter Williams, Notre Dame; Karan Higdon, Michigan; Ryquell Armstead, Temple; Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska

T. Williams average rank: 110.5
Highest: 76 (ESPN)
Lowest: 238 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 3 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Kelly)

 

Hill average rank: 120.0
Highest: 72 (ESPN)
Lowest: 190 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 2 (Jeremiah, Kelly)

Love average rank: 120.4
Highest: 113 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 140 (CBS)
Not ranked: 4 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Anderson average rank: 125.3
Highest: 112 (CBS)
Lowest: 138 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

 

Holyfield average rank: 130.7
Highest: 99 (CBS)
Lowest: 157 (Norris)
Not ranked: 5 (Pro Football Focus, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Pollard average rank: 140.3
Highest: 132 (Brandt)
Lowest: 244 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 4 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Kelly)

D. Williams average rank: 148.0
Highest: 116 (Brandt)
Lowest: 177 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 4 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Kelly)

Higdon average rank: 160.3
Highest: 149 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 182 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Armstead average rank: 166.5
Highest: 147 (Brandt)
Lowest: 181 (CBS)
Not ranked: 3 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Kelly)

 

Ozigbo average rank: 169.5
Highest: 73 (Norris)
Lowest: 305 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 4 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Now we’re really all over the board, which is how a glance at eight NFL draft boards would look like. Some may not include Ozigbo — who wasn’t invited to the Combine — while another team could have a third-round grade on him. Trayveon Williams could be a third-rounder on one team’s board and a seventh-rounder on another’s. With all these guys, it depends on how they’d fit what Pace and Matt Nagy believe would fit the Bears best. 

A few quick thought here: Love seems unlikely given his medical re-check revealed some lingering concerns about his surgically-repaired knee. The previously-injured running back the Bears would seem more likely to take out of this group would be Anderson. 

Tier 5: Seventh-round fliers

Members: Benny Snell Jr., Kentucky; Mike Weber, Ohio State; Miles Gaskin, Washington; Jalin Moore, Appalachian State; Jordan Scarlett, Florida; Travis Homer, Miami (Fla.); Alexander Mattison, Boise State; James Williams, Washington State; Darwin Thompson, Utah State; Alex Barnes, Kansas State

Snell Jr. average rank: 164.0
Highest: 116 (CBS)
Lowest: 212 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 6 (Norris, Pro Football Focus, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Weber average rank: 185.0
Highest: 139 (CBS)
Lowest: 219 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

 

Gaskin average rank: 198.3
Highest: 147 (CBS)
Lowest: 243 (Pro Football Focus)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Moore average rank: 200
Highest: 191 (ESPN)
Lowest: 209 (CBS)
Not ranked: 6 (Norris, Pro Football Focus) Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Scarlett average rank: 204.0
Highest: 148 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 266 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Homer average rank: 208.8
Highest: 185 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 240 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Mattison average rank: 209.6
Highest: 150 (Norris)
Lowest: 295 (CBS)
Not ranked: 4 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

 

Williams average rank: 222.8
Highest: 127 (Norris)
Lowest: 281 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 4 (Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Thompson average rank: 247.0
Highest: 170 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 294 (ESPN)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

Barnes average rank: 264.3
Highest: 191 (Pro Football Focus)
Lowest: 327 (CBS)
Not ranked: 5 (Norris, Brugler, Jeremiah, Brandt, Kelly)

It’s hardly unprecedented for a running back drafted in the sixth or seventh round to make an impact — Chris Carson did for the Seattle Seahawks last year, for instance — but if the Bears draft one of these guys, expectations should be set accordingly. As in: It’d be a sign the Bears believe Mike Davis can take on a larger load, and that this player they drafted can fill a smaller role than, say, a running back drafted in the third round. 

Of note here: There rest of the players listed in Tier 6 are all ranked by only two services (ESPN and CBS). Exceptions were made here for Moore and Snell given their high rankings, and that Brugler has a fourth-round grade on Moore and a fifth/sixth-round grade on Snell, though neither were in his top 100. 

Tier 6: Priority free agents

Members: Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh; LJ Scott, Michigan State; Kerrith Whyte Jr., Florida Atlantic; Ty Johnson, Maryland; Wes Hills, Slippery Rock; Bruce Anderson, North Dakota State; Darrin Hall, Pittsburgh; Matt Colburn II, Wake Forest; Taiwan Deal, Wisconsin; Marquis Young, Massachusetts; Jaques Patrick, Florida State; Nick Brossette, LSU; Damarea Crockett, Missouri; Xavier Turner, Tarleton State; Joe Connor, Concordia (Mich.); Aeris Williams, Mississippi State; Khari Blasingame, Vanderbilt; Lexington Thomas, UNLV; Alec Ingold, Wisconsin; Craig Reynolds, Kutztown; Dominick Bragalone, Lehigh; A.J. Oullette, Ohio; Cullen Gillaspia, Texas A&M; Jordan Ellis, Virginia

 

That’s a lot of names! Perhaps the Bears could unearth a Phillip Lindsay-level undrafted free agent out of this group (want a name? Bruce Anderson). More likely, they won’t. But expect the Bears to sign at least one of the names from this group, or if someone from Tier 5 isn’t drafted (which is likely), as a free agent in the feeding frenzy that happens after Mr. Irrelevant is selected on Saturday.