The Chicago Bears have improved on defense this season.
Compared to last year, Chicago's defense has gone from 31st to 18th in points allowed, 30th to 2nd against the pass and 30th to 12th overall. That's a substantial uptick in production.
Yet, at the end of the day, the Bears are still a middle-of-the-pack defense with serious gaps in talent at a number of crucial positions. As a result, expect GM Ryan Pace to add a handful of impact players on defense in both free agency and the draft next year.
Many believe pass rush will be a priority, as the Bears rank just 18th in the NFL with 29 team sacks. If we look a little deeper, though, we find a group of outside linebackers performing at a level far higher than that for which they have been credited.
In fact, it could be argued that, when healthy, Chicago has the best trio of all-around outside linebackers in the entire league.
That's a bold statement, one some might write off as ludicrous, yet the numbers tell a different story.
Pernell McPhee has been everything the Bears hoped for when they made him their big-ticket free-agent pickup this past off-season, and more. In the five-game stretch between Week 3-8, he accumulated 5.0 sacks and was borderline unblockable.
Since then, teams have turned most of their attention McPhee's way on passing downs, consistently using double teams and chip blocks to limit his impact. In addition, a Week 9 knee injury has hampered him the past six weeks, forcing him to miss two of the last five contests, including last week's matchup against the Redskins.
Yet despite missing two games with a bum knee, McPhee's numbers have been outstanding this year - his first in the NFL as a full-time starter.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), McPhee has 43 QB hurries this season, which is fourth most in the league among 3-4 OLBs, behind only Tamba Hali, Khalil Mack and Justin Houston, and ahead of Von Miller. McPhee's 11 QB hits are also fourth at his position.
McPhee's Pass Rush Productivity - which measures pressure created on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks - is 16.2, which is better than every other outside linebacker in the NFL.
In addition to his pass-rush prowess, McPhee has also been dominant against the run. His Run Stop Percentage is 7th best at his position.
Based on the numbers, McPhee is one of the Top 3 all-around outside linebackers in the NFL, a player around whom the team can build going forward. Most fans and analysts are aware of McPhee's keeper status and have called for the Bears to draft a young edge-rush stud to accompany him next season and beyond.
While it wouldn't be a horrible move - you can never have too many pass rushers - outside linebacker is actually the strongest position on defense, due in large part to the recent play of both Willie Young and Lamarr Houston.
Over the last six contests, Young and Houston have combined for 9.5 sacks. Since Week 5, Houston hasn't gone two games in a row without picking up a sack, while Young has at least one sack in each of the last four games.
In terms of Pass Rush Productivity among 3-4 OLBs, Willie Young is 6th in the NFL, while Houston is 10th. With McPhee at the top of the PRP list, the Bears are the only 3-4 team in the league with three OLBs in the Top 10.
Houston's value goes even further, as he leads all 3-4 OLBs with a 14.3 Run Stop Percentage, per PFF. In essence, on a per-snap basis, he's been the most run stopper at his position.
For both Young and Houston, the recent surge in production correlates directly with their recovery from Achilles and knee injuries respectively. Remember, both players had surgery last year, with Young's coming in December, and neither participated in any of the off-season activities. In fact, Young didn't participate in full practices until the regular season started.
So their slow starts should have been expected. Now that they are healthy, Young and Houston are producing at a very high level.
"It's been gradual," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said today. "It's been a little bit each and every week. Once they got more and more playing time, they started feeling a little bit more comfortable and playing better and better."
Young is 30, so age is a slight concern with him, but Houston is 28 and McPhee is just 26. All three are signed at least through next season, with McPhee signed through 2019.
So when you consider what these three have done this season, is edge rush still a priority for the Bears, particularly early in the 2016 NFL Draft? Or would it be wiser to fill a bigger position of need, like inside linebacker, defensive end, cornerback or safety?
If the Bears draft or sign a stud edge rusher, few are going to complain. But if that big contract or high draft pick compromises Pace's ability to improve more pressing holes on the roster, especially with arguably the best trio of 3-4 outside linebackers already on the team, then the overall rebuilding process could take longer than necessary.
The grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence, and at outside linebacker, the Bears have one of league's most well-manicured lawns.