By Robert Zeglinski
If you unfurled the list of everything right the Bears have done this off-season, a file cabinet could be filled. From setting the tone with an energetic coach in Matt Nagy, establishing a support system of weapons like Trey Burton for Mitchell Trubisky, to likely drafting three immediate impact and long term starters like Anthony Miller in the 2018 NFL Draft: it’s been a season of aggressive milestones.
But for everywhere the Bears have improved, there’s something missing. For every mark they’ve added to their ledger to put themselves in a place where they can compete, they’ve left a glaring hole on their roster, that is surely not easily ignored. Minicamp starts this weekend and the gap has never been larger for the Bears.
As the offense has been propped up out of necessity, the Bears’ defense – and in particular the pass rush – has been neglected on a wholesale level with no surefire answers. When that pass rush is the driving force behind the defense’s success and is the platform to take the steps towards becoming a winning unit, that’s a root problem.
In the eight combined free agencies and drafts Bears general manager Ryan Pace has had the pleasure of manning, he’s acquired exactly four “major” edge pass rushers (apologies to the merely capable Sam Acho). Not the investment you’re seeking in making sure one of the most crucial field-tilting positions is taken care of.
The first is Pernell McPhee, the big ticket free agent of the 2015 free agent class for Chicago. Dominant when healthy, McPhee was anything but for the last 2.5 years of his Bears’ career. McPhee had just 14 sacks in three seasons and started only 17 games. Even in the games he did play in, he was hardly often effective enough to help disrupt an offense consistently. Most of the time McPhee did contribute a sack or tackle for loss, it was an inherently hollow box score number that didn’t reflect an overall listless performance lacking energy due to his injuries.
After McPhee is where this gets dicey, as the other three pass rushers have each been signed of late, and are actually on the Bears’ roster expected to contribute.
There’s Leonard Floyd, a 2016 first round pick who has missed 10 games in two seasons. Floyd feels like a good bet to finally bank on his immense talent in 2018, but is projection for elite terror of offensive tackles at this stage. He’s an incredible athlete that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes to use as his Swiss Army Knife.
Ask Floyd to cover a running back or tight end, he’s able. Ask him to rush off the edge, he’s set to burst off the line. Ask him to be the only edge rusher to count on, well, that’s a pressure-based situation from the start. It’s asking for trouble to put the onus on a player like Floyd still coming into his own.
2018 sixth round pick Kylie Fitts is an intriguing thought experiment. As once rising talent at Utah who then summarily had most of the second half of his career wiped away due to complications from a foot injury, Fitts might have most of his talent waiting to be unleashed. He’s is a talented “Fitt” in the Bears’ defense, albeit at a lesser level than Floyd. The major question with him is whether he’s past any of those medical red flags. There’s a reason he fell so far in the draft.
And finally, reclamation project Aaron Lynch, which isn’t a totally fair descriptor considering Lynch’s own health issues in the last two years. This is a player who was once more than a solid pass rusher in Fangio’s 49ers defense, stacking double digit sacks in 2014 and 2015 combined. But subsequent problems with consistency developed, along with lost favor from San Francisco coaches. It’s been a long time since Lynch was that young terror.
To recap, that’s a first round pick in Floyd that hasn’t had his big season yet, more of veteran depth than answer in Acho, and two guys with injury and consistency issues in Fitts and Lynch. What an excitingly shaky position group.
Mold this pass rush group together and you have a disconcerting potential Achilles heel of the Bears’ defense. For everywhere Chicago has it together on defense like the interior defensive line with Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, the edge rush situation looms. For each Kyle Fuller or Eddie Jackson interception in the secondary, the edge rushers remain a question until proven otherwise.
Yes, the Bears were seventh in the NFL in sacks in 2017 with 42, but that means their pass rush is fine instead of pronounced. This is a pass rush that disappeared against the good offensive attacks and which didn’t generate pressure: a far more valuable indicator of defensive success. Get the quarterback to the ground by any means necessary. Blame that on injury and a lack of overall depth and talent on the edge.
If the Bears plan on outscoring everybody with a record-setting attack led by a second-year quarterback in Trubisky, that’s a solid, if not optimistic thought process. It’s also naive wishful thinking to think their offense could be that special from the start. Chicago is going to have to stop teams on occasion, and they’ve been left without a chip, or edge to do so.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.