Be sure to check out the full 2015 Roster Turnover Story Stream as I work my way through every position group for the Chicago Bears.
Last time out, in our look at the defensive tackles, we touched on the differences in responsibility for some of the defensive linemen on the Chicago Bears under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. With the Bears going to a 3-4 defense in 2015, some (if not all) of the holdover defensive ends will become outside linebackers.
It's not a position change that hasn't been done before, as the responsibilities of some 4-3 defensive ends are schematically similar with some 3-4 outside linebackers. Fellow WCG writer Sam Householder went over a number of teams in recent memory that went from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in this article, but I wanted to look at a couple of defensive ends that made the move to outside linebacker just a few seasons ago.
In 2011, the Indianapolis Colts were running a 4-3 defense with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis starting at defensive ends. In 2012 the Colts changed to a 3-4 D and both Mathis and Freeney switched positions to outside linebacker.
In 2011, Mathis' 9.5 sacks led the team and Freeney was named to the Pro Bowl in part because of his 8.5 sacks. Pro Football Focus had Mathis down with a +8.1 grade at defensive end, with Freeney at a -2.3 for his play at DE. Mathis dropped into coverage from his DE position on 3 occasions with Freeney never dropping off the line. The following season the 31 year old Mathis and the 32 year old Freeney become OLBs.
Freeney had 5 sacks in 14 games in 2012 and he had a +5.4 grade at OLB according to PFF. They also had him down for 24 plays in pass coverage. Mathis again led the Colts in sacks, this time with 8 in just 12 games, and he made the Pro Bowl at his new position. PFF had him with a -3.9 grade as an OLB and they had him in coverage for 78 snaps.
The following season, 2013, Indy let Freeney go and moved Mathis to the right outside linebacker position and he really blossomed. PFF had him with a +31.5 grade and he had 19.5 sacks. Freeney moved on to the Chargers in 2013, but he stayed at OLB in their 3-4 D and PFF gave him a +5.1 in just 4 games before getting injured.
Freeney and Mathis successfully made the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker in their early 30s, so it's not unprecedented what head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are asking some of their players to do.
Jared Allen - signed through 2017 - Head coach John Fox is on record with his plans to line his current defensive ends up in a 2 point stance, and Jared Allen is on record saying he prefers to play with his hand in the ground. While Fox made his remarks last week, Allen made his comments way back in 2011.
Allen was in a different place in his career back then, so I don't think he has a problem with Chicago's move to a 3-4 defense this off season. At some point Jared Allen will have his position changed on the Bears' roster to OLB, but much like the two Colt DEs we talked about above, not much else will change in his responsibilities. He'll probably drop into coverage a couple dozen times, but he's paid to rush the passer and that will be his primary job.
Speaking of dropping into coverage, PFF has him down with doing that 8 times for the Bears in 2014, but it was something he did more often at Minnesota. From 2008 to 2013, while a member of the Vikings, he averaged nearly 20 snaps per season in pass coverage.
Last season PFF had Allen down with a +5.4 grade overall which was highest among all Bears DEs. Even though he missed a game with pneumonia and struggled getting his strength and size back, Allen still played the 6th most snaps among all 4-3 DEs (910). In my opinion that's too many for a 32 year old and I would expect the Bears to try to keep him fresher in 2015.
Willie Young - signed through 2016 - When Young was being projected to the NFL, some scouts felt he could play as a 3-4 OLB. Once he recovers from his Achilles injury we'll find out how he plays in his new role. Young set a career high in sacks last season with 10, but PFF had him with an overall grade of -5.2. They had his grade really going down after he took over as a starter for Lamarr Houston during the week 10 game. His grade from weeks 10-16 was -8.9, so maybe playing as a rotational player was the best use of his skills.
Lamarr Houston - signed through 2018 - Houston is the one DE on the roster that I feel can remain at his current position. That's not to say Fangio won't stand him up as an outside linebacker, but I think he has the size and strength to play as a 3-4 DE.
In Oakland, Houston would occasionally line up in a 2 point stance like an OLB. The Raiders also dropped him in coverage a handful of times each season. PFF had him down for 39 snaps in coverage in 2013 with a +1.5 grade in that category.
His 2014 season was obviously a disappointment, but once he recovers from his ACL injury, I think he'll be playing with a chip on his shoulder and he should thrive in a more versatile role.
David Bass - signed through 2015 - I don't see Bass staying at defensive end for Fox and Fangio, so he's another guy added to the mix at OLB. He's a good athlete so the position switch may suit him.
Cornelius Washington - signed through 2016 - Washington played all over the defensive front in college, some 4-3 DE, some 3-4 OLB and some 3-4 DE, but most pro scouts felt his best position would be as a 4-3 DE. Athletically speaking, Washington would fit in as a 3-4 OLB, but the Bears may want him to stay at defensive end. He doesn't have the mass that some 3-4 DEs do, but until camp begins it's hard to say where he fits best.
Jamil Merrell - signed through 2016 - Merrell signed a reserve/futures contract before Ryan Pace took over as GM of the Bears. He may be a better fit as a 4-3 defensive end, because I'm not sure he has the type of athleticism for linebacker, nor does he have the size and strength to play as a 3-4 DE.
Austen Lane - signed through 2015 - Lane will need to prove he's more than just a camp body.
Trevor Scott - free agent - With a new regime in place, I don't see Scott getting another contract in Chicago.
2015 OUTLOOK - The defensive end position will need to be addressed in both free agency and the draft by new GM Ryan Pace. With so many holdover DEs switching to outside linebacker the Bears need bodies at the position. We talked about Jeremiah Ratliff and Ego Ferguson as two defensive tackles that could get some reps at DE in a 3-4, but they'll both be in the mix at nose tackle too.
Here are a few relatively inexpensive options in free agency at DE for the Bears. Detroit defensive tackle C.J. Mosley has experience playing at DE in a 3-4, Tennessee DT Karl Klug has the right body type to play defensive end in a 30 front and the Colts recently cut defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois who has a history with Vic Fangio in San Francisco. [EDIT: Jean-Francois has just signed with Washington.]
If the Bears look to the draft, Stanford's Henry Anderson could be a mid round option. At 6'6" he has the length to play 3-4 DE, but some scouts feel he needs to add some strength.
Georgia's Ray Drew was recruited to play OLB, but by growing to 284 pounds he was moved to the d-line. He has some experience as a 2 gap player, but he may be quick enough to play in a 1 gap scheme too.
UT-Chattanooga's Derrick Lott started his career at Georgia, but transferred to find more playing time. He had a good showing at the combine and at the East-West Shrine Game.
What are your thoughts on the defensive end position for the Bears in 2015?