Is the Chicago Bears defense on the verge of becoming an elite unit?

When considering the numerous off-season additions, and the presence of coordinator Vic Fangio, it may not be unreasonable to expect the Chicago Bears defense to crack the NFL's Top 10 this season.

Vic Fangio has been a defensive coordinator in the NFL since 1995. He's known as one of the top defensive minds in the game, yet that wasn't always the consensus opinion. In fact, his first 11 years as a DC - during which he led the defenses of the Carolina Panthers (1995-1998), Indianapolis Colts (1999-2001) and Houston Texans (2002-2005) - were fraught with extreme ups and downs.

He led Top 10 NFL defenses in is first two years with the Panthers, including the No. 2 overall unit in 1996. Yet things began to quickly unravel and by 1998, the Panthers defense ranked 28th in the league. With the Colts, Fangio's defenses never ranked higher than 15th and he was fired after his unit finished 31st in the league in 2001. 

Things didn't improve with the Texans, where his units never finished higher than 16th and twice finished 31st in total defense. 

In 2006, it was unclear if Fangio would ever again get a shot to lead an NFL defense. He worked in Baltimore as a defensive assistant for a few years, then as linebackers coach, before taking a collegiate DC job at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh. During that time, Fangio got his bearings and when he took over as coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, he was on the precipice of becoming a premiere NFL coordinator.

In four seasons with the 49ers, Fangio had nearly unprecedented success. In his first year in San Francisco, his unit finished 2nd overall, 2nd in points allowed and 1st in run defense. In 2012: 3rd overall, 4th vs. pass, 3rd vs. run, 2nd in points allowed. In 2013: 5th overall, 7th vs. pass, 4th vs. pass, 3rd in points allowed. In 2014: 5th overall, 5th vs. pass, 7th vs. run, 10th in points allowed. 

It's necessary to look back at Fangio's recent success when attempting to gauge how good the Chicago Bears defense will be in 2016. Specifically, can the Bears be a Top 10 defense under Fangio this season? 

That's a laughable proposition to outsiders but when we look closer, a Top 10 Bears defense this year should be expected. 

Consider last season, when the Bears had two inept inside linebackers, were dangerously inexperienced at safety, were nursing injuries to all three of their top edge rushers and were depleted along the defensive line. Yet Fangio still cobbled together a defense that finished 14th overall, 4th vs. pass, 20th vs. run and 22nd in points allowed. 

Those numbers might not jump off the page but they are impressive considering the dearth of defensive talent on last year's roster. 

This off-season, GM Ryan Pace made a concerted effort to raise the level of talent on defense. He added the top two free-agent inside linebackers in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman and a hulking interior defender in Akiem Hicks, then used a first-round pick on speed rusher Leonard Floyd, along with three mid-round secondary players, a third-round interior pass rusher and a fourth-round linebacker with long-term starter potential. 

In addition, both Lamarr Houston and Willie Young are 100-percent healthy and not, like last year, coming off severe lower body injuries. Those two excelled in Fangio's defense after getting healthy in the second half last season, combing for 12.5 sacks between Weeks 9-17. Imagine what those two can accomplish alongside Pernell McPhee in a season of full health. And if Floyd and Jonathan Bullard bring even more value on passing downs, the Bears should improve dramatically in team sacks - they ranked 22nd in sacks last year. 

For all those reasons, it's not absurd to believe the Bears can be a Top 10 pass-rushing unit next season, which will dramatically reduce the pressure on a secondary that still has a number of question marks.

Yet there's hope for the secondary as well. Kyle Fuller improved substantially in the second half of the 2015 season, while Tracy Porter resurrected his career under defensive backs coach Ed Donatell. And if just one of those young draft picks steps up this year, the secondary, which was Top 5 in the league last year, should stabilize considerably. 

For the Bears to be a Top 10 defense this year, they only need move up four spots in the rankings. Considering all the off-season additions and improved health, as well as the fact that Fangio is still in charge, if they don't develop into a Top-10 unit, it will actually be disappointing. 

Fangio has proven capable of creating elite units when given the right players and his defense was infused with fresh new talent at every single position. If he can build a Top 14 unit with Shea McClellin in charge, he should be able to mold a Top 10, and potentially Top 5 unit, with guys like Trevathan, Freeman, Hicks, Floyd and Bullard now in the fold. 

If and when that happens, they will have once again earned the right to be called the Monsters of the Midway. 


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