While the Lovie Smith era was well-known for fielding consistently stingy defenses, the defensive line play always seemed to an inconsistent group.
The team always seemed to be working to find a consistent pass rush force. It never quite got it from Adewale Ogunleye which led to the signing of Julius Peppers, however in recent years the team has struggled to find a player who could compliment Peppers on the other end of the line.
Last year the Bears defensive ends improved and the Bears ranked eighth in the league with 41 sacks. Of those 28.5 were generated by the ends, led by Peppers with 11.5.
This year there will be some new faces following the departure of Israel Idonije. Who will replace his 7.5 sacks, which was good for second on the team?
Let's break it down.
Starting Defensive End #1: Julius Peppers (12th NFL season)
Job Responsibilities: Bring down the quarterback. Get to him, knock him down, create pressure, be disruptive. He must play to force double teams from opponents to help spring his teammates for sacks and occupy would-be blockers to free up the linebackers to make corners. Also must be a force in the run game, bring down the back and stuffing running lanes.
Job So Far: Great. Peppers has lived up to the massive deal the Bears gave him back in 2010 and at age 33 he is still on top of his game. He is a force in both the run and pass game as a disruptive force who defenses must account for. He is a complete defensive end who will hopefully continue to rung up double-digit sacks for a couple more years.
Confidence Level: High. He is an eight-time Pro-Bowler and a three-time First-Team All-Pro. He's played at an elite level for a long time and hasn't shown a drop off yet. There is little reason to think he can't play at a high level this year.
Starting Defensive End #2: Corey Wootton (4th season)
Job Responsibilities: Create pressure and rush the passer. Take advantage of the single blocks created by Peppers. Get sacks and be a force in the run game as well.
Job So Far: Wootton was a bit of an unknown who was considered somewhat of a disappointment after being a fourth round pick in 2010. His first two years he lived up to his injury concerns he had coming out of Northwestern but last season he stayed healthy, played in all 16 games and finished third on the team with 7 sacks.
Confidence Level: Low. This is one of those cases where people clamor for a "medium" vote but since low is medium, this is where he lands. Just like concerns about Tim Jennings, I worry about Wootton having one big season and not being able to perform consistently. It's more about his health though than his on-field performance, though. Wootton has proven he can play at a high level but now he must do it consistently and stay healthy for another season.
Back up defensive ends: Turk McBride (7th season), Shea McClellin (2nd season), Kyle Moore (5th season), Cheta Ozougwu (3rd season), Cornelius Washington, Aston Whiteside (2nd season)
Job Responsibilities: Provide depth and rotation skills. In the Bears 4-3 system is imperative that every game day active defensive lineman can rotate in and play. They must be able to come in when called upon, either third downs or in a run-stopping situations.
Job So Far: This group is an interesting mix of experience and youth. Ideally McClellin will take a step forward this year and perhaps take the starting job from Wootton. If he doesn't though he will hopefully up his sack totals and be a more consistent force along the line. McBride has been around and should be a quality rotation player for the Bears. The rest of the group shapes up to be camp bodies and bottom roster guys, although Ozougwu impressed the previous staff and could take a step forward into a role as rotation player in his second season in Chicago.
Confidence Level: Low. While the group is intriguing it seems unlikely that these guys could step in and provide the kind of depth that would makes all levels of our defensive end depth feared. They should provide adequate situational depth but little more. McClellin was quite disappointing after being taken at no. 19 last year and hopefully he will take a big step in year two.
Overall Confidence Level: High. That's right, I'm turning the tables a bit here. While it might be easy to make the argument for low confidence, I believe that in the case of the defensive ends, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Individually, the group hasn't done much to instill confidence, but together I believe they are a formidable group. With Peppers as an anchor and if Wootton continues to stay healthy and McClellin takes a step forward, this group will cause headaches for opposing quarterbacks. But that's quite a few ifs...
What's your confidence level?
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