In the modern NFL, three aspects stick out as the most incremental to a team’s success. You need to have solid or better quarterback play, you need to protect said quarterback, and defensively, you have to be able to get after the opposing team’s passer. If an organization has these three components, they’re more than likely a contender in any given year. It’s the structure of this league.
For the Bears, they already have a relatively good front seven when it comes to a pass rush. You don’t come 12th in the league as a team with 37 sacks in 2016 and not possess some measure of talent in making quarterbacks pay. You don’t have 110 total pressures - good for eighth in the NFL - and not have the ability to disrupt an offense.
Does this now mean Chicago couldn’t use another consistent force in their front seven? No. In fact, another quality edge or interior pass rusher might be enough to transform this defense into a winning unit versus one that simply puts up good numbers.
That and a health factor should no doubt be in consideration for Ryan Pace to seek out a premium upgrade in free agency to his promising pressure group.
Despite those gaudy numbers, at a closer look there seemed to be a little missing for Chicago. That being a defensive roster laden with guys who can get after it, but many with the same pass rush style and who would vanish for stretches or even games at a time. Not to mention unfortunate, rampant health problems with the hobbled Pernell McPhee and Eddie Goldman.
Aside from the dynamic athleticism of promising rookie Leonard Floyd - who is still very raw - is there anyone else the Bears point to that they can rely on here? Who else can this team count on pressuring quarterbacks, let alone sacks?
Players such as McPhee and Akiem Hicks are primarily bull-rushers in using their raw strength and explosiveness to work past their blockers. The 29-year-old Lamarr Houston is much of the same, but has now suffered two ACL injuries. He could be a projected cut with minimal dead cap for the Bears later this month so it’s difficult to see him in any future plans, too.
Willie Young - who had six sacks in the first half of 2016 and just 1.5 in the second half - is a good soldier, but maxed out as a starter for a contending team. He’s better served as a swing edge player than with full-time snaps. The same concept applies for McPhee and his knee that saw him miss the first six games of last season after starting the year on the physically unable to perform list.
And as expressed, Floyd is promising, but he has a lot of growing to do to become the dominant player Pace and company envision.
There’s McPhee and Young in part-time play and then there’s the same echoed sentiment about Floyd’s fellow rookie companion, Jonathan Bullard. Bullard may yet contribute, but he didn’t flash much in his first season to value as an asset just yet.
Essentially, any idea that the Bears couldn’t use an upgrade to their front seven is misguided.
One more piece to this puzzle, either in the draft (Myles Garrett, Solomon Thomas, anyone?) or on the open market isn’t the worst thought for a Bears team building itself on the strength of its defense. You can never have too many pass rushers in the NFL.
Let’s take a look at a couple of potential free agent pass rush terrors come March 9th for Pace to shop for.
- Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers, Unrestricted
No one knows the story with Ingram and his future in Los Angeles (that’s still hard to type). On one hand, Ingram is an excellent running mate for the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Joey Bosa. On the other, two successive excellent seasons by Ingram may have earned him a significant raise the Chargers won’t be willing to offer with only a projected $20 million in cap space at the moment - barring any roster cuts. It’s a tight fit to pay a peaking player.
Guys such as Ingram, meaning those hitting their prime at the right time, are hot commodities. In a common theme, Ingram yet again fits the Pace free agent mold of players who have paid their dues as unsung heroes. They aren’t necessarily in the first tier of their position (Examples for Ingram: Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Justin Houston, etc.), but are just hitting their stride in potentially reaching that level.
Ingram, who will be 28-years-old next season, does everything you want an outside linebacker or edge player to accomplish. It’s not just the flashy sack or pressure numbers - we’ll get to that. He sets the tone in the run game while violently setting the edge.
And of course, as with any highlight defender, he’s a smart, technically sound, and instinctive player whose rarely out of position in his specific assignment. There were a ton of factors that contributed to the Bears having the 27th worst run defense last year. Ingram’s underrated proficiency in this area can help.
You don’t accumulate 125 tackles in two healthy years without a measure of discipline.
Every single thing about Ingram screams much more than a one-trick pony. This is an outside linebacker who tore his ACL in 2013 and has now recovered to cash in. It’s that recovery in the long road back that should hearten whomever decides to invest in Ingram because of how he’s matured.
Either way, Pro Football Focus agrees with metrics of their own: He’s one of the most complete edge defenders poised to make the leap towards elite.
Though remember, Ingram is set to cash in because of the most important aspect of his game: How he routinely gets to quarterbacks. The former first round pick has become consistently dominant here. He has 18.5 sacks and 50 quarterback pressures (29 in 2016 - good for eighth in the NFL) in the past two seasons. What Ingram does well in that regard, is that he combines a rare mix of speed and power to abuse tackles. More often than not, his leverage as a bit of a smaller guy height-wise (6-foot-2) allows Ingram to take opposing tackles on a ride without them ever getting their hands set
You can’t get a solid punch or grasp as a blocker with his speed and leverage.
Nice sack by Melvin Ingram, but that RB got in Albert's way too.. pic.twitter.com/27Q9POWxSM— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) November 16, 2016
Here, the left tackle Branden Albert, barely moves off the ball before Ingram bursts into the backfield to sack Dolphins quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. That’s a special anticipatory gift on display that the Bears could desperately use next to Floyd. Just think of the ways defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could mix and match his outside linebackers with Ingram in tow.
As mentioned, Ingram is going to a command a heavy price. He made approximately $7.7 million in 2016 off of his backloaded rookie contract from four seasons ago. A player with the services of Ingram should expect that number to climb to at minimum an average of $12 million. While expensive, that’s the going rate. Any kind of money for a player set to thrive with the most valuable defensive skill becomes a bargain, though.
Bringing Ingram in - at whatever demands - would transform the Bears defense into an unstoppable wall.
2. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals, Unrestricted
Scooping fumbles as a 3-4 defensive end isn’t what Campbell actively does. Yet, the talent shown off in doing so is still notable.
It’s applicable to the pass rush force the 30-year-old will bring to the table because he’s a versatile weapon for more of an interior defender. Not in the typical mold of someone his size, Campbell is a fluid Swiss army knife.
Campbell made an appearance on Pro Football Focus’s 2016 All-Pro team, and know that its only one indicator of his ability
Since as noted above, his teammate Jones will receive the franchise tag from Arizona, an aging Campbell may be on the way out with the Cardinals’ tight cap situation at only a projected, approximate $32 million. And for a team that believes it’s on the cusp (the Bears aren’t there yet), or for a building team looking for a consistent elite talent in general (the Bears here), Campbell is an intriguing prospect.
In nine seasons, Campbell has garnered 56.5 sacks, 382 tackles, eight forced fumbles and recoveries, and even three interceptions. In that same time frame, he has 82 quarterback pressures and consistently sits in the double digits - not what an interior 3-4 defensive end typically does. For someone seen as one of the best anchors on one of the league’s better defense’s in recent years, the resume is impressive.
In Arizona’s recent resurgence, Campbell has been thought of as the key defensive cog in the desert for good reason.
Sure, as he’s now in his 30’s, Campbell is almost certainly past his prime. And yes, he’s another bull-rusher, which as stated, the Bears already have in bulk.
It doesn’t matter here. Campbell’s consistency means he’s another kind of guy that can not only move all over your defensive front, but help it transcend. He would be a consolation prize to Ingram, but you don’t pass him up readily, even if it isn’t the typical Pace work-your-way-up acquisition.
Remember: The Bears broke that Pace tradition with Josh Sitton last year (mostly because he fell in their lap at the last minute). So they’ve at least strayed away from regular tendencies once with this regime.
You’re only getting a few years of quality production from Campbell - who will be 31-years-old by the 2017 season. In a way, that short-term investment may still pay huge dividends.
Whatever the case, Pace has his radar set. An edge investment such as Ingram or Campbell in March could be the foundation of the next great Bears defense.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.