The Chicago Bears have a bit of a pass-rush problem, a problem the team hopes to solve this offseason with the right set of moves.
It began on Monday when the team cut outside linebacker/edge defender Pernell McPhee, saving more than $7 million in cap space in the process. McPhee broke out early in his Bears career, but injuries kept him from reaching his full potential in Chicago. With McPhee out of the picture, the team is set to move on and replace some important defensive snaps.
The Bears’ 39 sacks ranked 18th in the league last year, which is hardly where you would expect a defense that finished in the top-10 in scoring and yards to end up at season’s end. Then again, the Bears had four edge defenders finish the year on injured reserve – including McPhee.
Finding the right mix of edge rushers won’t be easy. Other than quarterback, no position is over-drafted by teams reaching for prospects than pass rusher. And while turning to free agency seems like a great idea, just know that the best pass rushers rarely make it to the market. Still, it’s not as though there’s not upside to be had.
OPTION I: RETAIN WILLIE YOUNG
The Bears could save $4.5 million and take just a $900,000 hit in the dead money department by parting ways with Willie Young, but the veteran defender can still get it done when he’s healthy.
Yes, Young turns 33-years-old in September, but he’s just a year removed from leading the team in sacks. And while he missed 12 games in 2017, Young had missed just two games in his previous five years. That’s the kind of durability this position group could use. Young has successfully made the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid, picking up 16 sacks in 35 games while playing in Vic Fangio’s scheme. Bringing him back and putting him in a starting role isn’t the worst idea in Chicago.
OPTION II: TARGET A TOP DRAFT PROSPECT
The best-case scenario for the Bears would be if North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb falls down the draft board and into their laps at No. 8. That’s unlikely to happen because Chubb is one of the best pass-rushing prospects in college football and will most likely be the first off the board in 2018. The First-Team All-American has racked up double-digit sack seasons in each of the last two years and that will ensure he doesn’t fall out of the top-5.
If you squint a little, you can see some Leonard Floyd in Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds. Much like Floyd, Edmunds has freakish athletic ability and tremendous upside to go along with skills that translate to multiple positions. Edmunds could be the kind of raw talent that Vic Fangio could mold into a formidable pass rusher, as he did with Floyd. Come to think of it, the idea of having two Leonard Floyds would be kinda neat.
Should the Bears choose an edge defender with more experience as a pass-rusher with similar upside, perhaps UTSA’s Marcus Davenport is the front office’s kind of target. Davenport dominated the competition at Texas-San Antonio, using his length and strength to beat opponents with power and speed. Where he lands in the draft could be decided by how he performs at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Coming into the season, LSU’s Arden Key was believed to be a top-10 lock if he entered the 2018 NFL Draft. Instead, shoulder surgery, a knee injury, and finger surgery limited Key and put his stock in limbo. Key played for a SEC power and has elite athleticism, which makes him a possible sleeper if he drops into the second round.
Boston College’s Harold Landry was literally slowed down by an ankle injury that caused him to miss time in 2017. But a year ago, Landry was coming off a season in which he led the NCAA with 16.5 sacks while coming away with 22 tackles-for-loss, seven forced fumbles, and an interception.
OPTION III: EXPLORE FREE AGENCY
Bringing back Lamarr Houston at the end of the season worked out so well, the Bears could do it again this offseason. Houston had four sacks in five games with the Bears, or to put it in a different light, as many as as McPhee had in 13 games and more than Sam Acho in 16. Houston turns 24 in June, but has 13 sacks in his last 21 games played in a Bears uniform. Clearly, he’s doing something right in Fangio’s system.
Trent Murphy of the Washington Redskins presents an outside-the-box free agent possibility. He missed the 2017 season after suffering an ACL injury, but just turned 27 in December. A second-round pick in 2014, Murphy came up with nine sacks in a breakout 2016 while rushing the passer on the other side of Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan. Murphy could still have some prime years left, albeit as a complimentary piece than as a starter who takes on a heavy work load.
In the end, the Bears would be best served to use the draft to find a possible long-term solution to their pass-rush problem and free agency to supplement the depth. Additionally, it would be nice to see the coaching staff continue to develop Isaiah Irving, an undrafted free agent who flashed in the preseason and jumped into the mix when others went down with injury during the regular season.