It's no secret that in the NFL, if your defense can't pressure the quarterback, you won't be able to stop many opposing offenses. Most NFL signal callers will eat up a defense if they have time in the pocket to throw.
The 2013 Chicago Bears finished dead last in the league in sacks (31), so it should surprise no one the unit ranked 30th overall. Without pressure up front, defenses cannot succeed. For most teams pressure is applied off the edges with disruptive, pass-rushing defensive ends. Injuries decimated Chicago's defensive tackles so the ends needed to step up and create havoc from the outside.
That never happened, which was destructive enough to the Bears' chances at success, but when you throw in their porous collective effort against the run, we find a group that severely underachieved.
Let's break down each individual defensive end to find out what went wrong and where changes must be made.
Wootton began the campaign as the left-side starter but was forced to play the majority of his snaps at defensive tackle after injuries knocked out player after player. Additionally, it was revealed this week that Wootton played all of 2013 with a bad hip, one that required post-season surgery. As such, it's tough to grade Wootton as an edge rusher. In terms of consistency and overall impact, Wootton was easily Chicago's top defensive lineman, which will make him a coveted player once free agency begins.
Peppers once again led the team in sacks (7.5), yet it was his lowest sack total since coming to Chicago in 2010. He also had three batted passes, an interception, two forced fumbles and led all defensive linemen in tackles (46), so it's not as if he had a bad year. He just didn't have a "Julius Peppers" year, and when you're making a salary-cap-crippling $17 million, people take notice. It was clear last season that the 33-year-old has lost a significant step. He showed little burst off the line of scrimmage and was easily blocked by a number of mediocre offensive tackles. Peppers had his moments, including a Week 13 contest in which had eight tackles and 2.5 sacks, but he also disappeared for long stretches. His salary cap hit is north of $18 million in 2014 and $20 million in 2015, which seems very unrealistic for an over-the-hill edge rusher with a diminishing tank.
Against the run, McClellin is the worst 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. His inability to stack and shed at the point of attack played a big role in Chicago's dead last ranking against the run last year. Forced into a starting role due to Wootton shifting inside, McClellin could not set the edge and opposing offenses took advantage of him. As a pass rusher he had one good game, a 3.0-sack performance against the Green Bay Packers in Week 9, but in his other 13 games he had just 1.0 sack combined. Remember, this is a former first-round draft pick, one touted as a speed rusher who could be disruptive on passing downs. It's clear now that McClellin is a bust, which is why both Emery and coach Marc Trestman said he'll be moved to linebacker next year.
Bass was a 7th-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders whom the Bears claimed off waivers just before the start of the season. He was inactive the first four weeks of the year before slowly working his way into the defensive line rotation, even starting the Week 10 contest against the Detroit Lions. In 317 total snaps, Bass showed very well against the run, demonstrating good power and stoutness at the point of attack. He wasn't consistent as a pass rusher, picking up just 1.0 sack, but he's a promising young player who has the potential to develop into a quality rotational defensive end.
Ozougwu was elevated from the practice squad in Week 11. A speed rusher, he picked up 1.0 sack in 63 snaps. If you extrapolate that to equal McClellin's 661 snaps, Ozougwu would have had 10.0 sacks in 2013. Yet that's about as far as his value goes, as he struggles mightily against the run. The Bears have been trying to develop Ozougwu for two years now. If he can take a step forward during training camp next year, he could fit into the rotation as a situational pass rusher.
Last year's sixth-round pick, Washington was too raw to put on the field last season. He played 10 total snaps and did nothing with them, and was inactive in nine of the final 11 contests. The youngster must refine his game if he's going to justify a roster spot in 2014.
Bears 2013 DE Grade: C-
Peppers' contract carries $8.3 million in dead money if the Bears choose to waive him. If they wait until after June 1, that money can be spread out over the next two years at roughly $4.15 million in 2014 and 2015. That's a lot less than the $18.1 million and $20.6 million he's scheduled to make the next two years. Considering his reduced production, it would be shocking if Emery chooses to swallow Peppers' contract next year, as cutting him after June 1 will save the club more than $13 million in 2014.
Additionally, Wootton may leave via free agency and McClellin is being shifted to linebacker. So it's conceivable the Bears will have an entirely new group of defensive ends next season. Waiting until after June to cut Peppers means all the high-priced free-agent veterans will have signed elsewhere, so expect Emery to invest heavily on defensive ends in the draft. If he can find a few guys to collapse the pocket off the edges, it will go a long way toward returning the Bears' once-proud defense back to respectability.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.