Bears fans have long thought of their team's defensive ends like quarterback-seeking missiles. After all, players like Hall of Fame DE Richard Dent lead Chicago's feared 46 defense and helped popularize the sack as an impact statistic that all future generations of defensive lineman would be judged by. Lovie Smith's arrival as coach only served to strengthen this notion. His defense thrived on (and frankly required) athletic ends to manufacture constant pressure on opposing QB's. This meant the Bears were constantly on the lookout for the smaller, lighter players who had the knack for sprinting past offensive tackles and flying into the backfield to wreak havoc.
That all changed last year when the Bears scraped their 4-3 defense and switched a 3-4. The role of the DE (a.k.a "5 technique" or "5 tech") in the 3-4 alignment is quite different. The ideal player for this position is big (6'3" or better and topping 290 pounds) with long arms and very good functional strength. The ability to anchor versus offensive lineman and control multiple gaps is preferred over the ability to rush the passer. Due to this substantial change Chicago scrambled to find players who had both the requisite physical traits as well as experience playing in the system. What they've ended up with, as you might expect, a mixed bag.
If I had told you at the beginning of the season that an underachieving castoff from Washington would be the most consistent DE for the Bears this year, you may have sat and down and cried or started drinking heavily. The good news is while that assessment of Jarvis Jenkins is true, he has really found his way under Vic Fangio and is playing the best football of his career. He's certainly more steady than spectacular but that's not a bad thing. He's chipped in 3.5 sacks and helped the other Bears lineman understand the nuances of the their new defensive scheme.
Two of the final draft choices from the Phil Emery regime (Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton) certainly looked to have uncertain futures with the club when the coaching staff and schemes both changed after their first year as pros. However, both have shown surprising versatility and made some impacts in their time on the field this year. Ego is currently suspended for violating the NFL's banned substances policy but Sutton continues to contribute as a rotational piece on the defensive line.
You'll likely need a gameday program to keep up with the bottom half of the Bears DE depth chart. Not only because it changes often but also because the players who occupy those spots are not superstars. After Jeremiah Ratliff raged his way off the roster, Chicago turned to long-time Steeler veteran Ziggy Hood to help fill the gap. During the course of this season they also added Mitch Unrein and Bruce Gaston. These are lunchpail guys. Players willing to fight in the trenches, wrestle, struggle and generally play sound assignment football to support the mission of the defense. Their numbers have been very similar and very even, with grades right around the neutral mark. Given their pedigree and salary, that's not bad at all.
Neutral, solid and supporting play are all well and good, but to develop into a top NFL defense the Bears will need impact players. The 5-tech spot in not traditionally thought of as weapon in the 3-4 defense but it can be. The league is ever-changing and those changes present opportunities. College schemes are often ahead of the NFL when it comes to innovation and this creates players who can take an old role in a defense and turn it on its head. I think Chicago can add just such a player in the draft next year, but right now he is busy making plays as a Duck.
DeForest Buckner, Defensive End, University of Oregon
It seems like there is a pipeline that runs underground and delivers huge, dynamic athletes to University of Oregon's football program. Maybe they have them trucked in, but either way there never seems to be a shortage of very tall, very talented playmakers on the Duck's defense. Two of Buckner's immediate predecessors were both drafted into the NFL in the first round. Dion Jordan (6'6") and Arik Armstead (6'8"!) ended up with the Dolphins and the 49ers. While Jordan's story has been more of a tragedy (he's currently suspended for a year for violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy) and Armstead has yet to really flash a playmaker in his rookie season by the bay, both made a lot of big plays for Oregon during their time in Eugene. DeForest Buckner is the heir to that mantle and might be better than either of them right now even though he's still in school.
Buckner certainly looks the part at 6'7" and 290 pounds. The looming question (that will be asked a million times during draft season) is "Does his play on the field match up to his looks?". Positional bias based on where a player attends college doesn't make a ton of sense, but it is a reality. If you are an LB at Penn State, a QB at USC or an OT from Iowa, people will have preconceived notions about you based on the players who have come before you. Big athletes coming out of the Duck's defense will have to answer for Jordan and Armstead's lack of production in the NFL. Is that fair? No. But it's true. Luckily for DeForest, his game tape shows that he may have already done more with less than either of the players that came before him.
Currently there is one game film of Buckner from this year on Draftbreakdown.com. It's from early in the season (2nd game of the year for the Ducks) versus Michigan State. Honestly, it's not overly impressive. There are some good moments, but Buckner basically battled a healthy Jack Conklin (LT from Michigan State, who is a likely 1st round talent himself) to a standstill for most of the contest. Buckner was pretty solid against the run but there were very few of the impact plays you are looking for. The good news is that since then DeForest has found his groove and provided plenty of big plays down the stretch of this college football season.
Starting with the 6th game of the year, Buckner has averaged over a sack per game. He's also averaged over 1.5 tackles for loss in those games, so the impact plays are piling up. For the season he has recorded 69 total tackles (half of them solo), 14.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and 5 passes batted down. Buckner is wreaking the kind of havoc you would hope an athlete of his size and skill would. Coincidentally, the Ducks are currently riding a 5-game winning streak.
To get a better sense of who he is as a player I went back and watched a couple of his games from last season. I'd seen those games before but at that time I was focusing on the other end of the line, where Arik Armstead was playing. Being familiar with the games let me watch them in a new way. I quickly came to realize that a lot of the plays that other Oregon defenders made were heavily influenced by Buckner. The national championship game against Ohio St. is a prime example. While the Ducks lost that contest DeForest played some inspired football, forcing the Buckeyes to adjust their gameplan He possesses a rare mix of attributes and skills that allow him to create impact on any given play:
- Power - very strong upper body that he uses to move offensive linemen
- Length - Has very long arms allowing him to both keep blockers off his frame and bat down passes by getting his hands way up into passing lanes
- Awareness - tracks the ball and flow of the play very well, especially versus the run
- Tackling - strong form tackler who delivers impact on contact
- Agility - Good change of direction skills and the ability to hurdle cut blocks with ease
- Speed - Not overly quick, but has a very long stride that lets him motor once he's up to speed
- "Arm Over" move - very effective at his height; simply "swims" over shorter blockers
The scariest thing about Buckner may be that despite how good he is now, he still has a ton of room to improve. When scouts talk about a player's "ceiling" this is exactly what they mean: how good can he really get? Buckner has the potential to grow into an absolute wrecking ball of a pro if he lands in a situation that forcess him to focus on his shortcomings:
- Hand use - Often a player's greatest strength can lead you to a weakness. Buckner is so strong that he hasn't had to develop his hands. He just bulls into a lot of linemen. Besides using the arm over move, he does not really work to defeat his opponent's hands to free himself. If he can add a club, swim, rip or spin move, he'll win with regularity.
- Stance - He generally plays with very good bend (stays low in his stance for leverage) for a man of his size, but when he gets tired he stands up off the snap and loses leverage. This is a common and correctable flaw.
- Finishing - For as many plays as he makes he leaves even more on the field. Failing to make the tackle after having one arm around the ballcarrier is the DE's equivalent of a WR dropping a pass they should have caught. Buckner works very hard to move to a position so he can make a play. Once he is there and has at least one of his massive arms on the runner, he needs to work just as hard to finish so he brings that player down more often.
Buckner is not only a physical specimen, he's also a very solid football player right now. If he works on improving his mental understanding of the game and fine tunes his physical technique he could become a weapon on par with some of the greatest defenders in the league. That kind of difference-maker would be a welcome addition to the Bears defense.
Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are thriving in the pro game)
Adrian Amos (FS, Bears) - This 5th rounder out of Penn State has been a solid defender for almost his entire rookie season, but he is really starting to come into his own. It is obvious from his play lately that his understanding of the defense is increasing, and that's allowing him to play fast and loose. His speed and power were on full display versus the Broncos. He racked up 7 tackles (including a few of the punishing variety) and his first sack of the year.
J.J. Nelson (WR, Cardinals) - A spindly speedster out of UAB, Nelson would not be a fit in every offense in the NFL. However he's right at home ripping off deep go routes in Bruce Arian's aggressive downfield aerial assault in Arizona. He grabbed 4 catches for 142 yards (35.5 yards per catch average!) and his first TD last week.
Failure to Launch (slow starters on the NFL stage)
Devin Smith (WR, Jets) - Smith was one of the best deep ball receivers in the nation last year at Ohio State. It seemed like all he did was catch long TD's and that garnered him a lot of pre-draft attention. Some even clamored for the Bears to grab him. When I studied his game I noticed that despite his obvious skill running and catching the deep go route, he was limited in many other areas. The Jets are finding that out the hard way after having burned a 2nd round selection on Smith and their patience is wearing thin. He dropped what would have been a long TD last week and the Jets lost by, you guessed it, a TD.
Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)
Second Sight: When watching film you often focus so hard on the player you are studying that you miss almost everything else. Going back and watching the same film while focusing on another player can let you see many things that you missed on the first pass. When I watched DeForest Buckner this week in games I had seen several times I saw things that had not registered with me in all my previous screenings. Many plays that I saw Arik Armstead involved with versus Ohio State in the 2015 National Championship game were actually the results of Buckner's pressure on the other side of the defensive line.
One other note about that game: Ezekiel Elliott was transcendent. He made very difficult runs look easy over and over again, against a very good defense. Players who step up big in big games are always ones to keep an eye on.