The 2013 Chicago Bears defensive ends were a highly disappointing group. The club ranked dead last in the NFL in sacks, which is a direct result of the Bears poor play off the edges.
This season, Julius Peppers is in Green Bay, Corey Wootton is in Minnesota and Shea McClellin is playing linebacker. To fill those roles, the Bears invested heavily on defensive ends in free agency and, as a result, the new group is almost unrecognizable from last year's unit.
Let's break down the club's edge rushers as we prepare for training camp, which is just around the corner.
At the opening bell of free agency, GM Phil Emery inked Lamarr Houston to a five-year, $35 million contract. At just 27 years old, the Bear believe Houston can serve as a stabilizing presence on the edge of the defensive line for many years to come.
In his fourth NFL season in 2013, Houston recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks. The coaching staff believes his best years are still ahead of him and that number will increase.
In reality, Houston shouldn't be expected to dominate in pass rush. Most likely, he'll serve in a role similar to that of former Bear Alex Brown, a powerful force against the run who will provide 6-10 sacks per season. If he can accomplish that on a yearly basis, he'll be well worth the money.
At the time of his signing, some folks believed Houston would slide inside to defensive tackle for the Bears, a position at which he has plenty of experience. That has yet to happen this offseason. Throughout OTAs and minicamp, he played exclusively at left defensive end with the starters. His positional versatility could come in handy down the line but if everyone stays healthy, the Bears have no plans to slide Houston inside.
Something to Prove
Willie Young was signed this offseason to a three-year deal worth $9 million. He started just one year for the Lions in 2013, accumulating just 3.0 sacks. Like Houston, the Bears expect Young to be stout against the run, yet there is also reason to believe he'll improve his sack totals.
In 2013, Young had 48 QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), which was third most in the NFL amongst 4-3 defensive ends. If Young can turn just a handful of those pressures into quarterback takedowns, he'll be a bargain at $3 million a season.
Young has worked exclusively at left defensive end with the second team during offseason activities. He's a very tall player with long arms. His length, combined with his strength, is what makes him a disruptive player, something that's clearly visible during practice. As a rotational backup, Young has a lot of potential this season.
The Bears inked Jared Allen late in free agency, adding to the defense the NFL's active leader in sacks. Yet he's 32 years old and is coming off his lowest sack total (11.5) since 2006. If Allen is over the hill and lumbers in a fashion similar to Julius Peppers last season, he won't provide much of an upgrade.
Yet if Allen can be a disruptive force on passing downs, he'll help raise the Bears out of the league basement in sacks.
The first reason for optimism: Allen's sack total last year would have led each of Chicago's defenses dating back to the 12.0 Mark Anderson posted his rookie year in 2006. Even in a down year, Allen would have provided more pressure off the edge than any defensive end the club has rostered the past seven years.
Another reason to believe Allen can find the fountain of youth: he's not coming off shoulder surgery like he was in 2013. He said his shoulder bothered him through most of last season but that he's now 100 percent healthy. If that turns out to be the case, Allen should be able to squeeze out at least two more years of top-tier productivity.
That said, if the doubters prove correct and Allen's age catches up to him, he'll go down as a $15 million mistake. His play this year will be crucial to the success of the team.
Trevor Scott has worked exclusively with the second team at right defensive end. He's also a key member of every special teams unit. The team loves his veteran leadership, experience and athleticism. He's a part of the coaching staff's plans this season as a rotational backup.
Scott is a six-year veteran who tallied 13.0 sacks in 2008 and 2009 combined. Yet he's bounced around the league since then, accumulating 4.5 sacks in 24 appearances the past four years combined. He's also not much of a run stopper, grading in the negative, per PFF, in each of his six NFL seasons.
The young challenger is David Bass, who emerged last year as a quality all-around player. Bass, who was a record-setting pass rusher for Missouri Western State, is just 23 and has a lot of upside. He worked with the third team during offseason activities but a strong performance in training camp and the preseason should earn him a roster spot.
Rounding out the roster are Austen Lane, a four-year journeyman, and Cornelius Washington, last year's sixth-round selection. If either player expects to make the final 53-man roster, he'll need to absolutely excel in Bourbonnais and during the preseason.
Last year's defensive ends set the bar low, so this unit will surely provide a serious collective upgrade in production. Few pass rushers in the league are as effective as Allen on a yearly basis, while Young and Houston are young, quality all-around players with upside.
In addition, all three are extremely durable. Houston hasn't missed a game his entire career, Young has missed just two the past three years and Allen has missed just three total games in 10 NFL seasons, his last coming in 2007.
If those three stay on the field and play to their potential, they could end up as one of the top defensive-end trios in the NFC. And if Bass or Scott can provide a spark as rotational players, the Bears will be in great shape off the edge this year.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.