Last week, I compared the Bears 2017 offensive personnel to the roster that entered 2016, broadly and subjectively proclaiming which positions are better, worse, or the same as last year’s team.
This week, I get to bite into the juicier half of the Bears’ roster and compare the 2017 defensive personnel to last year’s group.
As I did with the offense, I will compare the 2017 group to the group projected to play in 2016, not accounting for the many injuries that occurred during the season. I do this in part because we don’t know what injuries will come this season, but mostly because the 2017 group is better anyway and I don’t want anyone thinking I had to make excuses for them to win the comparison.
For what it’s worth, the 2016 Bears’ defense finished in the top 23 according to Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings. I’ll let you guess where.
Starting Nose Tackle: same
Eddie Goldman fills this spot on both years’ teams. Considering his lingering ankle injury through last season, it is hard to evaluate if he improved over the course of the year. He has played well in limited pre-season snaps, but not enough to know that 2017 Goldman is better than 2016 Goldman. Good thing 2016 Goldman was a dominant force every time he got on the field. #GoldmanSacks. Get used to it. It will be a thing.
Nose Tackle Depth: better
Both C.J. Wilson and John Jenkins have looked good in their pre-season appearances, and whoever wins the job will be an upgrade over Will Sutton.
Starting Defensive Ends: better
I’m on the fence about this because I’m suspicious that the starters will be Akiem Hicks and Mitch Unrein again. However, with the competition for the second end slot, if Unrein wins the starting job, it will because he’s playing better than he was a year ago. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with his performance so far this preseason, and I would be fine with this outcome considering I had him on my 53-man roster prediction while some others didn’t. If Bullard or Howard beats him out, then at least the Bears’ coaches believe this position is improved.
Defensive End depth: better
Between an improved Jonathan Bullard, Jaye Howard, and Mitch Unrein, two will be backups and both will be better than last years’ depth. Roy Robertson Harris may make the team if he continues to flash in preseason. Either way having him on the Practice Squad will only improve the generous helping of options at the Bears’ disposal.
Starting Outside Linebackers: better
Leonard Floyd finished last season strong and looks to be building on that success with the improvements you want to see from a first round pick. He's poised to break out as one of the league's elite speed rushers, but even if he doesn't achieve that lofty expectation, he is definitely coming in more prepared than a year ago.
As far the other side, Pernell McPhee started 2016 on the PUP list, with Willie Young entering the year as the starter. While McPhee is currently on the PUP following arthroscopy of the other knee, he's not expected to start the season that way. Coming into the season with McPhee on the active roster would certainly be an improvement over last year.
Outside Linebacker depth: same
This is a good group, but it's pretty much the same as last year. I'm not expecting additions like Dan Skuta to make the final roster. One could argue that if McPhee starts, than Willie Young would technically be a backup and that would improve the depth, but since Pernell's health is in question, I opted against upgrading the group.
Starting Inside Linebackers: same
Freeman and Trevathan should both begin the year as starters again. Freeman was excellent both against the run and in coverage last year, and I'm looking forward to a full season of the two of these Bears' romping around the mid-field stuffing runs and swatting passes.
Inside Linebacker depth: better
A year ago Nick Kwiatkoski was an unproven fourth-round draft pick. This year, he looks like the future of this position for the Bears. The way Kwiatkoski is playing in preseason, he could fill in for one of the veteran starters without much of a drop off. Nick's improvement is the main reason I say this depth is better, but Christian Jones is also looking like an upgrade over his former self.
Starting Outside Cornerbacks: better
Tracy Porter was the most consistent fixture on the Bears' defense last season. He showed up week in and week out for a losing team, fighting through nagging injuries to lead the team in defensive snaps at the withering and haggard age of 30. Porter won over many Bears' fans with his consistency, grit, and tenacity, but he didn't play up to a league average level.
Enter Prince Amukamara, a first round pick who has generally been considered a disappointment for playing at an average level while bouncing between teams. Average will be a significant upgrade for the Bears' secondary, and Prince has been looking good in Vic Fangio's defense so far.
Across from Amukamara, Marcus Cooper looks to be favored to start. Cooper has both signs of promise (including 4 interceptions last year and good preseason play so far) and reasons for concern (he had a high number of pass interference penalties, fell well below average in PFF grade, and didn't perform well by Football Outsiders' metrics). Bruce Arians has said that playing opposite Patrick Peterson is the hardest job in the NFL. While this may be hyberbole, I'm willing to hold out hope he will perform better in a more manageable role in the Bears' secondary. Regardless, he's an upgrade over Jacoby Glenn.
Starting Slot Cornerback: same
I'm tempted to say "better" here because I'm a fan of Cre'Von LeBlanc and I'm hoping he will win this job and be an upgrade over Bryce Callahan. As of now, however, it looks like Callahan will go into 2017 as the starter as he did in 2016. Callahan likely has improved over the last year, but my LeBlanc bias makes it more difficult for me to see so I'm calling it even.
Cornerback depth: better
This is a no brainer. There will be corners cut from this roster who are better than corners who started last year.
Starting Free Safety: better
Quintin Demps had six interceptions in 2016. The 2016 Bears' safeties all pooled their resources to amass one. Demps is the type of mid-tier veteran that Ryan Pace has been successful bringing to the Bears in the past (a la Hicks and Freeman) and I'm hopeful he can have similar success in the Bears' secondary for as long as those aging legs can carry him.
Starting Strong Safety: same
Adrian Amos is currently slotted to start in this role again. He's been a consistent player who avoids mistakes but doesn't get his hands on (or near) the ball often. There is a strong chance for Eddie Jackson to win the starting role early in the season if not by game one. As a talented rookie, I would expect Jackson to make more plays and more mistakes. He's a more exciting prospect for the future, but for 2017 I'm guessing this will even out to similar play.
Safety Depth: better
Adding Quintin Demps and Eddie Jackson without losing any of last years' starters leads to better players further down the depth chart. This secondary will be able to survive injuries much better than last years. I just hope they won't need to.
Special Teams: better
I'm not practiced in evaluating special teams as a whole, so I'm grouping them together and upgrading for the return abilities of Tarik Cohen, Eddie Jackson, and Benny Cunningham.
I have hand-made a visual representation of my comparisons for your viewing pleasure. Feel free to thank me in the comments.
This concludes my 2017 vs 2016 roster comparison, and the process has me all fired up about the Bears' future. To remember the last time I was this excited about the Bears' future I have to go back to...probably Saturday night watching Tarik Cohen's runs against the Arizona Cardinals' first-team defense. But if I don't count that, I have to go all the way almost two weeks to watching Mitch Trubisky in the first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. Ah...nostalgia.