The Chicago Bears need improvement across the board, but that all starts up front.
We have already discussed, for example, how the team can improve on offense by addressing deficiencies on the offensive line, but the Bears could definitely use a better showing from the defensive line and the rest of the front seven, as well.
According to the grades dished out by Pro Football Focus, the Bears’ front seven ranked 23rd – putting them squarely in the bottom half of the league and among the bottom third.
That means both the front seven and the defensive secondary rank among the NFL’s worst. Yikes.
PFF’s Michael Renner had an interesting statistical nugget about Bears linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who made 40 tackles in coverage while missing just one attempt – which Renner aptly identifies as an “insane” ratio and the best on their record since 2012.
Freeman, whose 93.8 grade was the best of the front seven, turned out to be a premier free agent signing by GM Ryan Pace. His 86 tackles and 24 assists led the team despite missing four games because of a PED-related suspension.
Of course, key players missing games was a common thread for the Bears in 2016, and it wasn’t just limited to Pernell McPhee (who has played in only 23 of 32 games during his first two seasons with the team). Danny Trevathan (7 missed games), Leonard Floyd (4), Eddie Goldman (10), and Lamarr Houston (14) were among the players who were expected to be key contributors to the Bears defense, but missed significant time in 2016.
It’s reasonable to expect that healthy seasons from these players would have pushed the Bears up the rankings; however, McPhee and Houston have both missed significant time due to injuries in their Bears careers, and it’s fair to wonder just how much should be expected from these two players when health is taken into consideration.
With that said, the Bears can probably stand to get younger here, too.
Houston (30), Freeman (31) and Willie Young (32) are three projected key contributors who will be 30 or older in the 2017 season. So, a little depth and youth might go a long way for the Bears in their attempt to stay healthy and improve in 2017.
In an attempt to combat the kind of performance drop-off that can happen when back-ups replace injured starters or players become less effective at an advanced age, the Bears would be wise to consider adding impact talent to their front seven, via the draft and free agency. Fortunately, they have the cap room and draft currency to add to the team’s core while supplementing its depth.
For example, three mock drafts have the Bears going defense in the first round with Jonathan Allen being a popular choice to end up with the Bears. Also on the draft front, the Senior Bowl North team coached by John Fox will feature eight linebackers and eight defensive linemen – giving the team an ample look at some younger prospects.
Jamie Collins would have been the top free agent on the market, but he signed an extension with the Cleveland Browns. Still, there are still players who might be available in free agency – pending franchise tag decisions, obviously. Five of the top-10 players in Zach Links’ free agent power rankings at Pro Football Rumors are front seven difference makers. This group includes linebacker/defensive end Chandler Jones (2), defensive tackle Kawann Short (3), linebackers Melvin Ingram (5) and Dont’a Hightower (6) and defensive lineman Calais Campbell (10).
If the Bears want to improve their front seven on the way to rounding out the defense, this appears to be the offseason to do it.
And if the Bears use their resources wisely, we might just see the front seven ranked in the top half of the league in 2017. But if they stand pat with this group and injuries occur again, we’ll likely be re-visiting this next winter with a similar grade and perspective.