General manager Ryan Pace took control of the team in 2015, and was tasked with repairing what were the worst defenses in franchise history, which took place in 2013 and 2014. The defense saw progress in 2015, promise in 2016, and what the team hopes is a real strength in 2017.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who is one of the more respected coordinators in the NFL, certainly has elements of the top defenses he had in San Francisco, with the 2017 Bears. Those 49ers teams had elite inside linebackers (NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis), as well as a strong group of pass rushers (Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks) and linemen (Justin Smith and Ray McDonald).
Currently, the roster consists of Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, which is arguably the best inside linebacker duo in the league. The ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft, Leonard Floyd, looks poised to take that next step to becoming one of the best pass rushers in football. He really came on towards the end of the year, and finished the season with 7 sacks in 12 games. Pernell McPhee is one of the best in the league at applying pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. Jaye Howard, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, was signed to push for a starting job and was the second best 3-4 defensive end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman have both shown that they can be dominant against the run and offer pass rushing abilities, also.
There are interesting players behind Hicks, Howard, and Goldman. Nose tackle John Jenkins was brought in as a free agent. You may remember him as the guy that pushed Roberto Garza backwards into Jay Cutler for a sack in that disastrous Bears-Saints game on Monday Night Football in 2014. Roy Robertson-Harris switched from his 3-4 outside linebacker to inside on the defensive line and could make an impact this year. Jonathan Bullard, who was a third round pick in 2016, should’ve played more than 17 snaps. He has bulked up to 296 pounds, which is 14 more than he played at last year. In a 3-13 season, why John Fox and company would choose to play a 30 year old lineman (Mitch Unrein), who doesn’t contribute much to a game is concerning. That’s the best time to develop young talent. CJ Wilson, who is probably the third best nose tackle on the roster, faces an uphill battle to make the roster, as long as Goldman stays healthy.
Prediction: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Jaye Howard, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris, John Jenkins, Mitch Unrein
The outside linebackers group is headlined by the aforementioned Leonard Floyd. In an effort to get stronger, he gained 25 pounds, in the offseason, and is now at 250 pounds. He has insane speed off the edge and, as long as he plays with proper pad-level, he should have a breakout season in year two. His counterpart, Pernell McPhee, does a lot of the dirty work and plays with a great motor. Ryan Pace was excited about how in-shape McPhee is for this season. Then, news broke that he was placed on the physically unable to perform list after the team found an “irregularity” in his right knee. Who knows how long he will be sidelined, as John Fox doesn’t reveal much when it comes to injuries.
If McPhee is forced to miss time, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young will have increased roles. Houston had eight sacks in 2015, but tore his ACL in week 2 last year. This is now the second time he has torn an ACL. Young is a warrior and was productive last year, despite dealing with various injuries. He recorded 6.5 sacks and 7.5 sacks, in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Some of the other options at outside linebackers are Sam Acho and Dan Skuta. Acho doesn’t do anything extraordinary, but he does a lot of the little things well. Skuta spent time with the Jaguars from 2015-2016, but he played under Fangio in San Francisco from 2013-2014, where he had the highest grades of his career, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s versatile, and he has value on special teams. He recorded five sacks in 2014, and should make the roster, especially with the questions surrounding Pernell McPhee.
Prediction: Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, Sam Acho, Dan Skuta
It was quite the surprise to see Danny Trevathan ready for the first day of training camp, as he tore his ACL in November. That certainly is nice to see considering the bad luck the Bears have had on the injury front over the past few years. Behind Trevathan and Freeman are Nick Kwiatkoski, John Timu, Christian Jones, and Jonathan Anderson. Kwiatkoski is a lock to make the roster and looks like he can be a starter sooner rather than later. Timu and Anderson will likely compete for one spot. The issue with Timu is that he lacks the speed that Anderson has. Jones played outside linebacker last year, but played inside linebacker in 2015. He has not made much of an impact in his career, however.
Prediction: Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Jonathan Anderson
The secondary was the weakest group of the defense last year. They struggled mightily to generate turnovers and faced too many injuries. While many additions have been made through the draft and free agency, there are still more questions than answers.
Tracy Porter and Jacoby Glenn, who started in week one last year against the Houston Texans, have been replaced by free agent additions Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper, who had four interceptions with the Arizona Cardinals last year. Cre’Von LeBlanc and Bryce Callahan played well in the slot last year and have also spent time at the other corner spots. The keys for them are health and consistency. LeBlanc was terrific against the Lions in week 14, but struggled in week 15 against the Packers.
Kyle Fuller is a former first round pick and has had an up-and-down career, since he broke into the league in 2014. He is best utilized as a zone corner, and has struggled tailing receivers in man-to-man defense. He missed the entire 2016 season after he had a knee scope. It was thought that he could have returned at some point last year, but Fangio hinted that he wasn’t motivated. It’s a possibility that he doesn’t make the 53 man roster, but there’s still a chance that he plays the full season. The decision will be based on how he performs in training camp and the preseason.
Deiondre Hall, who was a rookie last year, demonstrated some interesting tools. While he missed some time due to injury, he is 6′ 2″ and always seemed to be around the ball. Johnthan Banks is an interesting player to keep an eye on, as he was a second round pick in 2013 for the Buccaneers. He hasn’t had much success as of late, but maybe he can have a strong preseason and earn a roster spot. Either way, it a low risk, high reward type of move, even if he doesn’t pan out. Sherrick McManis is a strong special teams player, but he doesn’t provide much as a cornerback. The competition at the cornerback position is certainly intriguing, and we will soon know how it all shakes out.
Prediction: Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, Bryce Callahan, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Kyle Fuller, Deiondre Hall
The safety position has been a revolving door, since the days of Chris Harris and Danieal Manning. Adrian Amos has been a pleasant surprise, since being taken in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. He has started at free safety each of the last two years and is a sure tackler. He needs to improve in the turnover department, as he is yet to record an interception. He will more than likely move over to the strong safety spot, with the addition of Quintin Demps, who had six interceptions for the Houston Texans last year. The new free safety will provide veteran leadership and an abilty to create turovers for a defense that has been lacking in that area. Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson, Chris Prosinski, Harold Jones-Quartey, Eddie Jackson is an interesting group of veterans and young players. Jackson is a rookie from Alabama and can play the ball well in the air, but has struggled making tackles. Bush is entering his second season and made some plays as a rookie, but struggled to catch interceptions. Jones-Quartey has been a starter each of the past two years, but is yet to really separate himself as a big piece moving forward.
Prediction: Quintin Demps, Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson, Deon Bush, Harold Jones-Quartey