By Robert Zeglinski
Take a breath and take it all in. This is officially the last week without any football activity for the next approximate six months.
Before NFL veterans report in a week, Chicago Bears rookies officially report to Bourbonnais on Wednesday. Everything is moving so fast and settling into place.
Last week, we took a look at the Bears offense and its primary questions during training camp. Now it’s time to examine the strength of the team and the defensive unit – especially up front.
Even despite a franchise worst 3-13 record, the official slogan of the 2016 Bears should read “not that pathetic” because much like the offense — the Bears defense wasn’t wholly abhorrent last season. There were several stretches where the NFL’s 15th ranked defense in yardage actually showed objective competence.
Highlights included the Bears possessing the league’s seventh best passing defense despite virtually no established talent on the back-end as well as ranking 12th in the league in total sacks with 37 despite a host of injuries on its front line.
With additions of Marcus Cooper and Prince Amukamara, Chicago finally has, at a minimum, respectable players in its secondary. But any successful play these two newcomers at cornerback enjoy will be defined by the health of a loaded but somehow always shaky front seven. Injuries always plaguing the Bears where it matters most.
Virtually each primary pass rusher for Chicago has a question mark that has to disappear if the Bears are to take the next steps towards becoming a winning or even elite defense.
Last year, first-round pick Leonard Floyd displayed plenty of the talent that made him the No. 9 overall pick en route to seven sacks in an eye opening midseason stretch. However, he also suffered two concussions and had his play derailed overall by a gaunt frame that held him back from truly dominating. The sophomore 24-year-old has all the potential in the world to become a top-10 pass rusher, as long as his health permits. A 16-game season is a paramount goal here.
Floyd’s starting partner in crime at outside linebacker, Pernell McPhee, is often recognized as one of the league’s true underrated talents on the edge. His physicality and power set him apart as a quality tier two defender.
Yet due to a degenerative knee condition, the 28-year-old’s overall effectiveness has been extremely limited in his first two seasons in Chicago. McPhee has only played in 23 of 32 available games and even that figure is misleading because he began 2016 on the physically unable to perform list while essentially playing himself into shape. The “sexier” McPhee (in his words) significantly slimmed down this offseason to help take the strain off of his knee and joints but no one knows the exact results for sure until he puts it all together on the field. A 100-percent player next to Floyd would work magic for the Bears defense.
Meanwhile, backup outside linebacker Lamarr Houston is recovering from a second torn ACL in as many years, starting nose tackle Eddie Goldman may have chronic ankle issues that have held him back some to this point in his NFL career, and new defensive end Jaye Howard ended last season on injured reserve with the Kansas City Chiefs due to a hip flexor.
As one can see, the one individual unit where the Bears might be strongest with the most depth is also where they’re most vulnerable. Characterizing the front seven as very boom or bust is not out of line. If Chicago suffers anything here close to the injury prevalence they’ve previously experienced, progress on defense will be at a minimum.
Sticking with the injury theme, Chicago’s ravaged front seven last season also didn’t leave the linebackers alone. Star 2016 free agent acquisition Danny Trevathan tore his patellar tendon in a late November contest against the Tennessee Titans and is still recovering the injury. A guess could be made on a midseason return this year if all goes well but there’s no timeline set for Trevathan’s recovery just yet.
In that light, one of last year’s rookie fourth-rounders Nick Kwiatkoski is going to have to grow up quickly, as it’s very possible he begins the season as the starter next to the stalwart superstar veteran, Jerrell Freeman. The 24-year-old Kwiatkoski appeared in 14 games last year and started seven. From this vantage point, he had a mixed review of his overall performance.
With 44 tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble, Kwiatkoski occasionally flashed athleticism and speed that made him stick out at college in West Virginia. But a said lack of professional experience also had him overrun plays, misdiagnose coverages, and generally play with a lack of prevalent control.
If a Bears defense that ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing defense last year is supposed to improve, Kwiatkoski has to be more than serviceable next to his partner in Freeman while pressed into duty. An effort that shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Competition to watch
Given the Bears’ rotational plans and depth along their front seven provided the situation develops well, every player available will have a valuable role. What’s going to stick out in camp with that in mind, is the competition between last year’s third-rounder Jonathan Bullard and a rising project in Roy Robertson-Harris as the backup five technique (if one makes the easy assumption Howard is the starter).
Bullard, who many projected as a first-round talent that fell to the third because of an undersized frame, flashed very little in 2016 and was even benched from time to time by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The 23-year-old had just 18 combined tackles and but one sack as a rookie.
It must be noted that not every rookie will immediately flash their talent at the NFL level as some take longer than others to adjust as professionals. So it’s possible Bullard has untapped potential simply waiting to be unleashed.
Still, Bullard’s performance also left a lot to be desired and leaves the door open for the freakishly sized Robertson-Harris, who’s making the transition to defensive line this season. The 6-foot-7, 268-pound former undrafted free agent has been hard at work in improving his technique and transitioning to the league. Robertson-Harris is someone many believe to be the Bears’ secret weapon, not the best of news for Bullard.
Whatever happens, these are still quite clearly, two talented and hungry players looking to prove themselves. Whoever doesn’t come out on top will still have a role with the team in spot duty, as again, injuries can always hit. Remember that for large, burly defensive linemen, iron always sharpens iron, too.
Defensively, outside of health and an unproven secondary, it’s fair to be able to place a lot more in faith in the Bears on this of the ball. Chicago’s time in Bourbonnais will be much more about maintaining what the Bears have on defense to prepare for the grind of the regular season instead of searching for constant answers.
As the Bears will no doubt learn as well, sometimes all you need is a professional and patient approach to health to make real strides as a team. R.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.