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How can the Bears fix their need at edge rusher this offseason?

The Bears will have several options in addressing a huge need of theirs this offseason.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears
The Bears are going to need to find someone to pair up with Leonard Floyd at the outside linebacker position.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Make no mistake about it: the Chicago Bears need help at the edge rusher position.

Arguably their biggest need heading into this year’s offseason, their group of players at outside linebacker isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. This is the group that they currently have on the roster:

  • Leonard Floyd. He’s young and athletic with lots of potential, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Plus, he still has some more room for development.
  • Pernell McPhee. He wasn’t terrible this year, but he’s getting older, has a fairly sizable contract and has an injury history. He will only have $1 million in dead cap room this season, too. He might be gone come March.
  • Willie Young. He has been solid for the Bears for years, but, coming off of a torn triceps injury and a potential out in his contract which would only see him carry $900,000, he might be released. He’s also going to be 33 years old in September.
  • Lamarr Houston. He surpassed all expectations after he re-joined the team when he picked up four sacks in five games, but he’s a free agent who will be 31 in June. Even if he’s brought back, he’s a Band-Aid solution at best.
  • Sam Acho. An underrated player, a great locker-room presence and a solid player on special-teams, Acho might be worth re-signing this offseason. Nonetheless, he’s not necessarily someone you want starting for your team.
  • Isaiah Irving and Howard Jones. I lumped the two together because they’re in similar positions. They’re both young players, but neither of them have much upside. Odds are at least one of them won’t be back next year.

Out of that group, only one of them is guaranteed to return to Chicago next season. That’s not a situation anyone wants to be in when fixing the most important defensive position.

There are many ways that the Bears can address their edge rusher need this offseason. Here are just a few scenarios that could possibly happen this offseason.

Note that my writing some of these options down doesn’t necessarily mean I want or expect them to happen. This is all hypothetical at this point, and is meant to address a handful of possible scenarios.

The “Upside” Solution

  • Sign free agent Matt Longacre
  • Draft UTSA edge rusher Marcus Davenport in the second round

Let’s start with what I think is the most realistic scenario of the five I’ll mention. I don’t necessarily think that the Bears will break the bank for an edge rusher, nor do I think that they’ll draft one in Round 1. This solution gives the Bears a veteran edge rusher who wouldn’t be too costly, yet has potential to be a valuable player, as well as a high-upside rookie who could develop into a special player.

On a Los Angeles Rams defense which also features the likes of Aaron Donald, Trumaine Johnson, Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn, it’s easy for a guy like Matt Longacre to get overshadowed. And yet, despite only starting one game all season, he managed to have a breakout year. Similar to Pernell McPhee in his last season with the Baltimore Ravens, Longacre had a very good season (5.5 sacks) despite not having much playing time. In fact, he only played on 35 percent of Los Angeles’ defensive snaps this season. At 26 years old, Longacre has potential to do well if given the chance to play for another team.

A player like Longacre would be a great player to plug into the starting lineup while a developmental pass rusher learns under his wing. Although I’m not a fan of picking a player like that with the eighth overall pick, I wouldn’t be opposed to doing so in the second round. There’s no player who would better fit that bill than Marcus Davenport.

The small-schooler out of UTSA (University of Texas at San Antonio) is in line for a rise up draft boards similar to that of eventual second-round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon last season, of whom, I might add, I was quite fond. Davenport is a 6’7”, 255-pound specimen of strength and athleticism. He has great first-step quickness, impressive bend off the edge and power to just bull rush right through offensive linemen. In addition to his pass-rushing abilities, Davenport is also a good run defender; he takes good angles to the ball carrier and does a solid job of clogging holes. He’s still fairly raw technique-wise, and he doesn’t face a lot of great competition in college. However, his physical abilities would make him a player that Vic Fangio would love to work with.

Not only is something like this the most realistic option, but it’s also my favorite. You get to take a talented veteran in a bad situation like Longacre, pick him up for a relatively low price, and draft a rookie to develop under him. It would set the Bears up well for the present and the future.

The “Gamble” Solution

  • Sign free agent Dion Jordan
  • Draft LSU edge rusher Arden Key in the first round

I didn’t call it the “gamble” solution for nothing.

Jordan is a restricted free agent, so it’s not even a lock that he’ll hit the open market. The Seattle Seahawks could place an original-round tender on him, which would mean that any team who wants to sign him would have to give up their first-round pick to do so. If they do that, then the Bears would obviously pass on him. If they don’t, though, then he might be worth a look.

Jordan, who missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to suspensions, is best known for being one of the biggest draft busts of the 2010’s. The third overall pick for the Miami Dolphins in 2013, Jordan only racked up three sacks in 26 games for the team. However, in the short sample size we saw from him this season in Seattle, he seems to be ready to make an impact in the NFL. He displayed the ample athleticism that many scouts saw in his when he was coming out of Oregon en route to a four-sack season in just five games. There are still a lot of questions surrounding him, like whether or not that stretch was a fluke, and if he can be trusted to not take drugs again. Because of this, whichever team he plays for next year better have another good option in place.

Hot take alert: I think that picking an edge rusher not named Bradley Chubb at No. 8 would be a worse move than picking a wide receiver at No. 8. Although picking a wide out from this class that high is a reach, picking an edge rusher from this class that high is perhaps an even bigger one. With Clelin Ferrell staying at Clemson for his senior season, the gap between Chubb and the rest of the edge prospects widened tremendously. A lot of people tend to believe that Arden Key is worthy of being the second-best pass rusher in the draft, though.

Key is the definition of a boom-or-bust prospect at the outside linebacker position. He has the three physical tools that coaches and scouts love most in an edge rusher: size, speed and strength. He has great bend and burst off the edge, and his first-step acceleration is impressive. His situational awareness and ability to change directions are both very useful, too. His 2016 tape was one of the best I watched last summer. There’s no denying that, if he’s coached up well, he has the potential to be something special.

However, there are quite a few concerns surrounding Key, both on and off the field. He left LSU during spring practices for personal reasons that were never specified. He also underwent shoulder surgery last season and suffered knee and finger injuries this season. One of the biggest concerns regarding Key last summer was his weight. Although he went from 238 pounds in 2016 to 265 pounds this season, a lot of that weight wasn’t necessarily good weight. That said, his athleticism wasn’t as apparent on tape this year. On the field, he is still very raw and inconsistent. He relies too much on his pure athleticism, as he doesn’t have much in the way of hand techniques to shed blockers. Because of this, he can be a non-factor on quite a few plays.

This duo would undoubtedly be the most risky of the other potential pairings on this list. The potential in it, though, could be enough for the Bears to at least consider it.

The “Proven Veteran” Solution

  • Sign free agent Ezekiel Ansah
  • Draft Ohio State edge rusher Tyquan Lewis in the fourth round

I personally don’t expect Ryan Pace to spend big money on an edge rusher in free agency this season. Anything’s possible in the NFL, though.

Ansah hasn’t played as an outside linebacker since his college days at BYU, but he has the size (6’6”, 275 pounds) and the athleticism to do so. Aside from his down year in 2016, he has been a productive pass rusher who has been able to stay relatively healthy throughout his career. He will probably cost quite a bit in free agency, but it would be interesting to see how Ansah would fare alongside Leonard Floyd off the edge.

With a big free agent signing like Ansah, the Bears could afford to wait until later on in the draft to find some depth. They could find someone like Ohio State’s Tyquan Lewis to fill that role.

Lewis is a very powerful rusher off the edge. He has an impressive bull rush and rip move in his arsenal, which helps him power past offensive linemen with ease. He’s an asset in the run game, as he consistently takes good angles to the ball. Lewis also improved his acceleration off the snap, which was an issue of his in 2016. Plus, he’s versatile: he lined up as an edge rusher and as a 3-technique and 1-technique defensive tackle. He’s a bit stiff-hipped, but he has potential to be a solid player in the NFL.

A duo of Ansah and Lewis would be a great addition to a thin group of outside linebackers. Although I don’t think it will happen, there’s definitely some chance of a scenario like this playing out.

The “Trade Up” Solution

  • Sign free agent Kony Ealy
  • Trade up, draft North Carolina State edge rusher Bradley Chubb in the first round

Out of all five of these hypothetical scenarios, this one is probably the most unlikely. The chances of Bradley Chubb falling to the Bears at No. 8 are virtually zero, barring a horrific Combine showing or the revealing of some off-the-field issues we don’t know about. That means that the Bears would have to trade up to pick him, which I don’t see happening. However, there’s no denying that, if they were to trade up for Chubb, he would make an immediate impact for their defense.

Chubb isn’t a flashy, Julius Peppers-type of player like Myles Garrett was in 2017. Instead, he’s more of an Everson Griffen: a powerful, disruptive, take-no-prisoners kind of brute. At 6’4” and 275 pounds, Chubb has the size to match up physically with offensive linemen in the pros. In addition to his pro-ready frame, he is a strong, yet athletic rusher who is arguably the most polished edge rusher in this year’s class. He has a wide variety of pass-rushing moves in his arsenal, and he knows how to throw an offensive lineman off balance. His first-step acceleration and natural athleticism in space is awe-inspiring for such a big man, as well. When I watched him live against Notre Dame this season, he was a constant force in the backfield against what was probably the best offensive line in college football this year. He’s an asset as a pass rusher and as a run defender. He’s even not too shabby in coverage.

The Bears would likely only go for this move if they were aggressive in nearly every other one of their needs except for edge rusher. So, although you need depth at the position, a trade up for Chubb would likely indicate that they only added a rotational piece at best in free agency. Kony Ealy would fit the bill of a cheaper edge rusher with some upside.

Ealy started his 2017 season off terribly, getting cut by the New England Patriots before the start of the regular season. Once the New York Jets gave him a chance, though, he flashed some potential. He only had one sack, but he did a good job of pressuring the quarterback and dropping back into coverage - he had nine pass breakups this year. He could serve as a solid player who could sub in every once in a while.

Chicago would likely lose a relatively high draft pick in trading up for Chubb, so they would have to fill their other needs efficiently in free agency and later in the draft. However, an edge rusher tandem of Chubb and Floyd would wreck havoc in the NFC North for years to come.

The “Mid-Round Gem” Solution

  • Sign free agent Junior Galette
  • Draft Georgia edge rusher Lorenzo Carter in the fourth round

This solution is fairly similar to the first one, only they don’t quite draft an edge rusher as quickly. Let’s say Marcus Davenport isn’t available for Chicago in the second round, which isn’t an unrealistic scenario. If you want to get another athletic project, then you can definitely do so later on in the draft with Georgia edge rusher Lorenzo Carter.

For what it’s worth, I have a higher grade on Carter than Round 4. However, considering the relative lack of hype from the national media around him, I’m going to say that he could be available there. If Ryan Pace can snag Carter this late in the draft, then he could potentially have another Day 3 steal on his hands.

As I’ve said before on Twitter, if you liked Floyd coming out of college, then you’ll like Carter. After all, they have a lot in common, besides that fact that Carter also goes to Georgia. He, like Floyd, is a long and lanky outside linebacker at 6’6” and 243 pounds. He is a fantastic athlete who can use his speed and fluid hips drop back in coverage, as well as rush the passer. His bend and first-step acceleration are both very impressive. He actually uses his hands to shedding blocks surprisingly well for an athletic project, although he could still improve in that regard. His production doesn’t jump off of the page, but, like Floyd, he was used in coverage more than the typical 3-4 edge rusher. It wouldn’t surprise if Carter were to start to gain more attention after the Combine, but I can tell you right now: he’s the real deal. The Bears would be in a good situation at the edge rusher spot for years if they were to draft him.

Chicago would still need to add another veteran to bolster the group, though, which is where someone like Junior Galette would come in. Galette, like the previously aforementioned Matt Longacre, is in a situation which sees him currently not getting a whole lot of playing time. The likes of Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and youngster Ryan Anderson are all on the Washington Redskins, which limits Galette’s chances to shine. Despite that, Galette still managed to have a decent 2017 season, notching three sacks. It’s a far cry from his double-digit sack days with the New Orleans Saints, but he’s still a solid edge rusher.

Galette had two consecutive season-ending injuries in 2015 and 2016, so Pace wouldn’t give him more than a one-year deal. Nonetheless, Galette proved this season that he can still be a solid player in the NFL. He would be a good addition to Chicago’s edge rushing group.

Like the first solution, the last solution on this list follows the blueprint of signing a talented, yet fairly cheap veteran in free agency and pairing him with a developmental piece from the draft. The Bears will have a lot of different ways in which they can fix their need at edge rusher. That may be the best way for them to do it.

Which solution seems the most appealing you? How would you address the edge rusher position? Let me know in the comments below.