New Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has typically run a 3-4 defense, so it’s safe to assume he’ll bring the same scheme to the Windy City.
If he does, the Bears will be in serious need of outside linebackers, who serve as the primary pass rushers in a 3-4 system.
The team has a few options at the position but all carry plenty of risk. Willie Young and Lamarr Houston are coming off major injuries, while Jared Allen appears over the hill. Shea McClellin and Christian Jones could have success at OLB but neither has any experience at the position in the NFL, so how they’ll perform in that role is anyone’s guess.
The Bears will likely spend a high-round pick in this year’s draft on a quality young edge rusher but to truly shore up the position, grabbing an established veteran makes a lot of sense as well.
With that in mind, here are the open-market edge rushers the Bears should be targeting once free agency begins on March 10.
Justin Houston (6-3, 258) Age: 26
Houston is arguably the top free agent in this year’s class, regardless of position. He led the league with 22.0 sacks last season and, at 26 years old, is just entering his prime. Many believe his best years are still ahead of him, which is scary. The Chiefs want to place the franchise tag on him but may not have the financial flexibility to do so. If the Bears want to make a huge splash, they’ll pony up for Houston, one of the top pass rushers in the NFL.
Jason Worilds (6-2, 262) Age: 27
Worilds had 7.5 sacks last season and 15.5 sacks the past two years combined. He’s expected to draw interest from the Titans, who hired his former DC Dick Lebeau this offseason, and the Eagles, who courted him last year before the Steelers slapped the transition tag on him. Worilds is young but he’s never been a dominant pass rusher and has struggled against the run. Considering his potential price tag, the Bears may be better off looking elsewhere.
Jerry Hughes (6-2, 254) Age: 26
Hughes was a bust in Indianapolis – 5.0 total sacks in three seasons – yet he’s accumulated 20.0 sacks in Buffalo the past two years combined. He’s emerged as a potent edge rusher and has experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. With only one full year as a starter, Hughes shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg, and may offer production comparable to some of the bigger names on this list.
Brian Orakpo (6-4, 257) Age: 28
Orakpo is one of the best 3-4 edge rushers in the NFL, recording four seasons of 8.5 sacks or more. He’s also very strong against the run. Yet Orakpo has struggled to stay healthy of late, missing 24 games over the past three seasons. For that reason, the Redskins are unlikely to bring him back. If the Bears can snag Orakpo at a discount due to his injuries, he’d be a considerable addition to Fangio’s defense. And if he stays healthy, he’ll end up a downright steal.
Jabaal Sheard (6-3, 264) Age: 26
Sheard picked up 15.5 sacks his first two years in the NFL but has regressed as a pass rusher, accumulating just 7.5 sacks the past two years combined. Yet Sheard was second on the Browns in pressures (24) in 2014 and led the team in QB hurries (27) in 2013. He’s still adequate on passing downs and he’s a beast against the run. Sheard is as well-rounded an outside linebacker as there is in this class.
Brandon Graham (6-2, 265) Age: 27
Graham had a lot of success as a 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014, picking up 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He also had 39 QB pressures, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), which was seven more than any Bears player last season. Graham is also very stout against the run. He’s not a sexy pick but Graham could very easily slide into a starting position in Chicago and have a lot of success.
Akeem Ayers (6-3, 255) Age: 26
In nine games for the Patriots last year, Ayers registered 4.0 sacks and an interception. His 29 QB pressures, per PFF, were second most on the team. He was also solid against the run. The former second rounder was a bust in Tennessee but at just 26 years old, Ayers could be in line for a career rebound. He’d be a shrewd pickup for the Bears.
THE PICK: Brian Orakpo
Orakpo is an injury risk but when healthy, he can be a dominant force off the edge in a 3-4 defense. He’s only 28, so he still has at least two more good years ahead of him. If the Bears can front-load an incentive-based contract, Orakpo makes the most sense of any free-agent OLB.
He has game-changing potential on passing downs and is also stout against the run. Lining him up in Fangio’s system would instantly make the entire defense better, and his recent injury history will keep his cap hit relatively low.
Other than the threat of further injury, there’s nothing not to like about Orakpo. A properly structured contract would make him well worth the risk.
Others to Consider
Brooks Reed (6-3, 254) Age: 28
Reed isn’t much of a pass rusher – just 7.5 sacks the past three years combined – but he’s solid against the run and has experience at all four 3-4 LB positions.
Kroy Biermann (6-3, 255) Age: 29
Biermann is serviceable against the run and provides occasional pressure. He’s a low-risk, low-reward option.
George Johnson (6-4, 263) Age: 27
A career journeyman, Johnson finally found a rotational role with the Lions last year, racking up 6.0 sacks and 27 QB hurries. He’s a young, cheap option with upside.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.