I don’t really have a set schedule for this series, so my apologies if I jump from position to position in jarring fashion. Defensive end is an interesting position for the Bears, and one of the hardest to forecast for next year; if the Bears do switch to a 3-4, all of this upcoming analysis with regards as to who the Bears should retain might be for naught. But assuming the system remains the same, in general, my review/analysis is as follows, and as will be constant throughout the series, salary info will come from Spotrac, while snap count info will come from Football Outsiders.
Julius Peppers, DE
Julius Peppers is the $18 million elephant in the room this offseason. As has been discussed, the Bears have to be salary cap-conscious this offseason, and Julius Peppers might be the highest-profile cap casualty. The Bears would save about $9.8 million in cap room by releasing Peppers, and as the Bears look to get younger and more effective defensively, paying a gigantic sum to a soon-to-be 34-year-old defensive end who’s been decreasingly impactful. He recorded 7.5 sacks, his lowest number since he joined the Bears for the 2010 season. (In fact, his lowest number since his outlier season of 2 sacks with Carolina in 2007.) The lower sack total can be partially attributed to the massive injury hit to the rest of the defensive line; if opposing offenses don’t need to double team any other defensive lineman, they’re sure to key on Peppers. He forced two fumbles and had an interception, and the fact that one of those forced fumbles resulted in that ridiculous Green Bay touchdown shouldn’t be held against him.
The most important number with regards to Peppers’s future in Chicago, though, is that salary figure. It’s not an unreasonable figure for a star defensive end, and if the Bears are very confident that he can be that player for another year, then I’d expect him back. I don’t personally feel he can be that guy anymore, though. He’s had low sack totals before, notably in 2010, his first year as a Bear. That season, he faced similar issues to 2013; opposing offenses were able to key on him thanks to a relative lack of defensive line talent. But that season, I still felt like Peppers was able to have a massive impact on games without getting to the quarterback. He’d get off blocks, play the run well, and he had nine passes defended (he only had three passes defended this season.) This year, his impact was much less apparent. He was able to stay on the field, which was a rare trait for Chicago defenders. He played 851 defensive snaps, which was 82% of the possible total; Corey Wootton played 81%, but he split time as a defensive tackle. Among defensive ends, Shea McClellin was at 651 (62%), and then it’s a steep drop to David Bass’s 311 (30%). We still saw vintage Peppers in certain games; the win over Green Bay, the Baltimore game, and the loss to Minnesota being the main examples, as Peppers recorded 5.5 of his 7.5 sacks in those three contests. (Which means, obviously, that he only had 2 sacks over the remaining 14 games. That’s not good.) I’m sure he’d be capable of a few star-quality games next year, but it seems like he’s destined to be a league average-type player going forward, with a ceiling of above-average.
Those players are useful, of course, but not at Peppers’s salary. To be an $18 million dollar player in a capped league, you have to be capable of putting up excellent performances on a consistent basis, and I just don’t think Peppers can do that. If the savings gained by cutting Peppers allows the Bears to sign two league average players (or even one above average or star-level player) then it makes sense to let him go, as that course of action would seemingly provide more value to the roster, especially due to the holes around him. That’s painful to say, considering the greatness he’s displayed as a Bear and the fact that the number of competent defenders the Bears have under contract is a small one, but that cap figure is just too big to justify his return, in my opinion.
David Bass, DE
The Bears brought David Bass in this offseason after he was cut by the Raiders. Bass was a seventh-round pick for Oakland, and it’s fair to say that not much was expected of him. But the injury crisis gave him the chance to shine, and as noted above, he played 30% of defensive snaps as (essentially) the number three defensive end on the depth chart. He recorded one sack, made one interception (which he returned for a touchdown), and generally played fairly well, especially considering the level of expectation.
Bass turned into one of my favorite sleeper players this year. His ability to competently defend the run (especially in terms of keeping backside contain) seemed far beyond what Shea McClellin brought to the table, and he was disruptive in the passing game as well. (Again, that’s the eye test.) He’s on the books for a minimum-type salary through 2016, and if he can become a solid, rotational defensive end that’s tremendous value. Based on this year’s performance and the reasonable salary going forward, I see no reason why the Bears shouldn’t give him that opportunity. There’s no real downside. If he blossoms excellent; if he plays poorly, the Bears can cut him without penalty.
Cheta Ozougwu, DE
Cheta Ozougwu only played in seven games, and I don’t remember his impact in his best one. Against Baltimore he apparently recorded a sack and a forced fumble. (My memory is normally a lot better, so I’m surprised I don’t remember it. Of course, I was watching the majority of that game in a tiny window of the screen with no sound thanks to the local weather tornado coverage taking over the broadcast, so that probably explains it.) Cheta logged 63 snaps on defense, which works out to 6% of the total. But when active, he played a lot on special teams; 105 snaps (22%) which is a solid amount for seven games worth of work.
Ozougwu turned 25 in November, and he just completed his third season. He was a seventh-round pick by the Texans in 2011, but he’s a bit undersized at 6-2, 255. (Of course, if the Bears switch to a 3-4 system, that size might look a bit more appealing.) His contract runs through next season, at a non-guaranteed $575,000. I won’t pretend to have any real idea of how he played on special teams, but if the Bears think he can be a solid contributor on special teams while providing emergency depth at defensive end (or as a backup 3-4 outside linebacker) I don’t see a downside in bringing him back at that price.
Stay tuned for the rest of the defensive ends, including Shea McClellin, Corey Wootton (a defensive end for our purposes) and 2013 sixth-rounder Cornelius Washington. It will probably be up Monday, as this will likely be a weekday feature going forward.