Going into the off-season, Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox put a large emphasis on improving the team’s defense through the addition of playmakers, those who add more speed and youth.
Here we are a week after the draft and it looks like their plan is set in full motion with multiple improvements at every level of the defense. But just how much better is this defensive unit?
The Bears were able to get younger and add speed but will it be enough to take the next step in 2016? Only time will tell but it’s time to take a deeper look into just how much the defense has changed in a few short months.
What a difference one year can make. Last year at this time, the Bears had Ray McDonald, Jarvin Jenkins and Ego Ferguson projected start to on the three-man line. With McDonald and Jenkins gone, and Ferguson's status as a starter in limbo, the team will likely go into this season with a brand new 3-4 front.
Second-year nose tackle Eddie Goldman, free-agent acquisition Akiem Hicks, and a rotation of Ferguson, Mitch Unrein and third-round rookie Jonathan Bullard will square away the line in 2016.
With every starting position on the line considered an upgrade, let’s take a look at the projected depth chart heading into off-season activities.
DE: Akiem Hicks, Mitch Unrein, Cornelius Washington
NT: Eddie Goldman, Terry Williams, Bruce Gaston, Greg Scruggs
DE: Ego Ferguson, Jonathan Bullard, Will Sutton, Keith Browner
Through free agency and the draft, overall depth, experience and speed have been greatly improved. That being the case, Ferguson and Sutton, two former high-round picks, have been put on notice.
Inside linebacker, arguably the team's weakest position last year, is now considered the most upgraded unit on the roster.
After beginning the 2015 season with Shea McClellin and Christian Jones in the starting lineup, the team upgraded the position in a big way by signing free agents Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, who are both projected to start this year.
As if those signings weren’t enough, the Bears spent a fourth-round pick on Nick Kwiatkoski, who could be a long-term answer at MIKE once 30-year-old Freeman’s contract is up.
The 2016 depth chart at inside linebacker looks much better than its predecessor.
JACK: Danny Trevathan, Christian Jones, Jonathan Anderson, Don Cherry
MIKE: Jerrell Freeman, Nick Kwiatkowski, John Timu, Danny Mason
Jones, Timu and Anderson all saw time as starters last year but, due to the massive overhaul, all three will be fighting for a roster spot this season. This position was the most substantially upgraded, at least on paper, with Trevathan (26) and Kwiatkoski (22) the projected long-term staples at ILB.
Heading into last season, both Lamarr Houston and Willie Young were coming off season-ending lower-body injuries. With their rehabs dragging well into OTAs and training camp last year, it was hard to truly gauge the depth of this unit, even with the addition of Pernell McPhee.
This season should tell a different story with Houston and Young now fully healthy, while McPhee’s knee should also be 100 percent. In addition, the team traded up two spots in the first round to take explosive pass rusher Leonard Floyd, while also bring back Sam Acho.
The starting quality at outside linebacker isn’t elite but it's not a weakness either. Floyd’s development in Year 1 will be something to watch, as his less-than-ideal weight could relegate him to 3rd-down-only duties his rookies season.
Rumors have linked the Bears to former Falcons pass rusher O’Brien Schofield but nothing has developed, at least as of this moment.
Here’s a look at the depth chart as it stands now.
Right OLB: Pernell McPhee, Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho, Nate Meier
Left OLB: Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Roy Robertson-Harris, Lamin Barrow
Unless a trade happens before camp, the first four OLB slots are set in stone. Robertson-Harris is a very interesting prospect, even as an undrafted free agent. The team used one of their 30 pre-draft visits on him, as he was projected as a mid-round pick. Acho, who last year was a good depth and a locker-room piece, will have his work cut out for him if he's to make the final 53-man roster.
Much like last year, this is one of the team’s biggest question marks as we move into off-season workouts. Outside of an extension from Tracy Porter, the team stood pat at cornerback in free agency.
They did however add Deiondre Hall in the 4th round of this year’s draft, who he projects as a raw player with high upside. With few financially feasible options on the free-agent market, this will be a position to monitor in the coming months.
The projected depth chart looks similar to last year’s outside of a few new names.
CB 1: Kyle Fuller, Deoindre Hall, De’Vante Busby
CB 2: Tracy Porter, Sherrick McManis, Kevin Peterson
Slot: Bryce Callahan, Jacoby Glenn, Taveze Calhoun
Cornbrback is a position that could use more veteran depth behind the projected starters. Porter was signed in June last year, so it remains to be seen if any new faces will be added before training camp. If not, corner may once again be the weak link of the defense.
Safety is yet another position the club did not address in free agency this year. Yet, while they weren’t active in the open market, the Bears spent two draft picks on safety prospects, with hard-hitting Deon Bush in the fourth round and small-school standout DeAndre Houston-Carson in the sixth.
Shortly after the conclusion of the draft, the team parted ways with veteran Antrel Rolle, who opened 2015 as a starter.
Although safety depth isn’t quite as depleted as it is at cornerback, it’s not far behind, especially if neither rookie can impress early.
With a few solid veteran options on the free-agent market, Pace and Fox could look to help themselves down the line if the need arises. Here’s a look at the depth chart.
FS: Adrian Amos, DeAndre Houston-Carson, Omar Bolden, Demontre Hurst
SS: Harold Jones-Quartey, Deon Bush, Chris Prosinski, Anthony Jefferson
There are some familiar names in Amos, Jones-Quartey, Hurst, Prosinski and Jefferson but no names that really stand out as long-term options. The team also added the veteran Bolden, a special teams standout who also does not project as a starter.
Amos is likely to start but he's no lock, as the starting safety spots will be won and lost during training camp and the preseason. This will be one of the more compelling position battles to watch heading into the regular season.
The emphasis Pace and Fox put on improving the front seven has been obvious since the start of free agency. At least on paper, it looks like it has paid off. The Bears now boast one of the better 3-4 front sevens in football and that will only improve as Floyd develops.
How the secondary plays out will be something to watch, as there is a mass of players looking to secure spots on the depth chart, with starting slots there for the taking at both corner and safety.
The defensive enhancements have been significant and the Bears are hoping the vastly improved front seven will ergo improve their secondary. With some of the better defensive minds in the game coaching them up, they appear to be in good hands.