BOCA RATON, Fla. – Like most NFL coaches and personnel decision-makers, Bears GM Ryan Pace gets a little squirmy when the conversation brushes up too close against who’s hot, who’s not and other subjects around what he and his team might be doing in the immediate future, as in the draft or ongoing free agency.
But action is character in theater and what Pace and the Bears have done in the areas of defensive line and linebackers have made clear statements of not only the priority going into 2016, but also the belief that dramatic improvement is within reach.
That has come with the signings of inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan in addition to defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. And while Pace tried to stay away from draft talk, it was apparent that the third spot in the “3” portion of their 3-4 may be addressed from the talent pool in this year’s draft, rated one of the best ever for defensive linemen.
“There’s talent there but it’s also a deep position in the draft,” Pace said on Tuesday during the NFL owners meetings. “So it’s a spot when we talk about improving our defense, it’s an area where we can make quick improvement.”
That improvement will come in multiple areas besides the draft. Ego Ferguson, a spot starter and part of the defensive rotation before suffering a season-ending knee injury, is on pace to begin training camp on time.
At this point, there have been significant developments at all four linebacker spots. Besides the Freeman and Trevathan signings, rush linebacker Pernell McPhee is targeting a lower weight as a means of increasing his speed and decreasing strain on his injured left knee, repaired with a scope procedure this offseason.
And 2015 sack leader Lamarr Houston (eight sacks) is securely in place at the linebacker spot opposite McPhee. Houston’s $6 million contract for this season loomed as a sticking point, but the Bears have managed their salary cap effectively, exercised restraint in the face of some hysteria signings elsewhere in the early days of free agency, and now are not expected to be in a position of needing a pay cut or roster trim involving Houston.
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“We feel good about Lamarr,” Pace said. “He came on strong. Luckily we’re in a healthy cap situation so we can [stay with him]. Those guys are hard to find. I think the playoffs were an example of pass rush and having a strong pass rush, and the more we have of those guys, the better. So we’re comfortable with where he’s at.”