Say what you will of Bears' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's blunt style, but he doesn't mince words. He refuses to put on rose-tinted glasses when a situation doesn't warrant it. That's how he's had a lengthy, successful career in the NFL. That's how he's risen to near the top of his profession. He never sugarcoats it.
When asked about the state of the Bears' defense in his January re-introductory press conference, Fangio, in typical fashion, pushed back against the sentiment that Chicago's defense had arrived in any way. That a top-10 2017 defense in yardage wasn't actually elite.
“I think it’s wrong to paint that the defense was great and the rest of the team wasn’t,” said Fangio then. “If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins.”
That assessment is correct when you examine the raw numbers. While the Bears did have a top-10 defense yardage-wise, their DVOA efficiency rating calculated by Football Outsiders' was at No. 14 overall. Recall the late season games against the Eagles and 49ers where the pass rush struggled once Leonard Floyd went out for the season with a knee injury, and that ranking lays to a better claim that the defense was closer to middling than good. To say the Bears' defense was a winning defense would be mistaken.
As a matter of fact, that pass rush is the main reason why the Bears were more average than good on defense. Because when Floyd was healthy, the Bears' pass rush still relatively struggled once injuries to aging linebackers such as Willie Young hit. A late season boosting addition of Lamarr Houston was only made after Floyd went down. By then it was too late.
Yes, Chicago tied for seventh in the league in sacks with 42 in 2017. But sacks aren't the end-all be-all in disrupting quarterbacks. A quality pressure works the same and can be considered more valuable and efficient as it's easier to do than actually bringing a quarterback to the ground.
The best example of this is the Super Bowl LII champion Eagles, who tied for 15th in sacks with 38 in 2017 - only a few behind the Bears. At a glance, one would think Philadelphia was mediocre in getting after quarterbacks because they didn't have those eye-popping sacks. And yet they were by far first in pressure rate, which is ultimately why they won their first championship in decades. Throwing a quarterback off his rhythm largely has the same intended effect as the loss of yards in tackling him with the ball in his hands behind the line of scrimmage. Crazy, but true.
A pressure compared to a sack is like an open three-point shot in basketball as opposed to taking the long two. One is much more useful and makes more sense to focus on in the three-pointer, as many teams have centered on. The other is a luxury and inherent bad offense that happens at a much less successful rate in the long two. In football, the pressure is easier to accomplish and should be strived for as such.
Sacks are still valued in the NFL, but they are overrated. Especially as it pertains to the story of the 2017 Bears.
If the Bears are going to enjoy the type of defense that can consistently flex on offenses and shut the door down when the time comes, then their pass rush needs to be fixed. And it needs to be fixed on the outside. Apart from Floyd, who has also missed 10 games in two seasons, there is nothing behind the former first-round pick in depth or starting talent. The recent releases of the now past-their-primes Willie Young and Pernell McPhee paint that picture, as it wasn't worth it to the Bears to keep these two declining veterans around. With or without them, Chicago's outside linebacker room was going to be barren.
Having guys like Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks on the inside to push the pocket is a comforting thought. Having more players aside from Floyd that can finish on the outside - who is a clear dynamo when healthy - and divert an offensive line's collective attention in blocking assignments is the end goal. They say a truly great defense has three pass rushers. The Bears have two: Hicks and Floyd. Almost there.
This is the Bears' top need on defense. Given that great franchise pass rushers rarely hit the market, they're going to have to be creative in free agency to remedy their defensive edge.
It's time to window shop bargain finds Chicago should consider on the open market.
Connor Barwin, DE, Los Angeles Rams
Steady thy name is Barwin.
Barwin isn't the type of player that's going to cure what the ails the Bears opposite Floyd. That's rarely been this seasoned veteran's game. Of late, the eight-year veteran has turned into a situational pass rusher in Los Angeles. That in itself, should be music to the ears at Halas Hall as the quintessential No. 3 swing edge rusher.
After signing a one-year $3,5 million dollar deal with the Rams last off-season, Barwin turned in a solid 34 tackle and five sack 2017. Those statistics could have been even better if not for missing two games due to a broken arm late in the year. At any rate, he was part of a resurgent Los Angeles defense, that while not elite, helped support an explosive offense that led to an NFC West title.
Barwin's not going to light up opposing offensive tackles. Nor is he going to change offensive game plans altogether. Those days are long gone. But if the Bears want an experienced veteran who can provide a boost in spurts and of whom is athletic enough to occasionally drop back into coverage if need be, that's Barwin. 54.5 career sacks attests to someone who knows how to get the job done. Sacks, as mentioned, don't tell the whole story as he's still a consistent edge pressuring presence at this stage in his career.
At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds Barwin can profile anywhere. He's more than a reliable run defender, who rarely breaks contain or loses gap integrity. He's a hard hat and lunch pail guy personified. Not a wholesale defensive edge fix, but a worthwhile consideration.
In terms of contract figures, it's unlikely Barwin receives much more commitment or money than with the Rams. Free agency is about negotiating and selling free agents on a rising program, however. The Bears will undoubtedly have to offer a little more security to Barwin than normal. Think two years for $10 million with $5 million guaranteed. Sweetening the pot for a player that could be seeking one of his last contracts shouldn't be hesitated on.
Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Los Angeles Chargers
Bears general manager Ryan Pace prefers to bet on upside in free agency of budding players. Think Hicks for example, who was nowhere near the dominant pass rusher he is now before signing with Chicago in 2016. In that respect, Attaochu is the premium example of that potential guy on this year's market for Pace. Although, this is to a much lesser degree given some health concerns.
After enjoying a six-sack season while playing in 15 games in 2015, injuries took a toll on Attaochu in 2016 as he sprained an ankle and eventually broke his foot. The former second-rounder has since struggled to fully live up to his potential as in 2017 the Chargers focused him in more of a situational role. A role that was limited to just four appearances, seven tackles, and zero sacks. A far cry from once being hailed the "Melvin Ingram" replacement.
With the 25-year-old certain to hit free agency after his rookie contract now, Attaochu will see a bevy of interest from teams looking to take a shot on him. Working from the Chargers' base 3-4 defense as a 6-3, 252 pound outside linebacker, Attaochu is a model the Bears would be wise to have join that group. He's the athletic freak they'd likely draft or desire for the edge anyway. He shouldn't be any more pricey than a one-year $2 million dollar deal, and that's pennies in comparison to the Bears' cap health.
The worst case scenario in an Attaochu signing is that he flames out in Chicago after not staying healthy, or after losing a lot of his original bright talent due to his injuries. Self-confidence can be a real demon to battle too, and that has to have taken a hit. The best case is that the Bears' upside bet pays off and he begins to realize his original blue blood pass rushing ability. He becomes a force on the outside with attention on Hicks, Floyd, and company, and earns himself another contract with the Bears.
If only one could look into a crystal ball and make this easy. Sometimes, especially with where Pace sits now in the middle of a crucial off-season, you have to take a projection leap with guys like Attaochu. As long as he isn't considered the primary pass rush savior, there's nothing wrong with the Bears casting a net.
Alex Okafor, DE, New Orleans Saints
It's fascinating that after an integral 4.5 sack incentive 2017 season, the Saints will not elect to bring Okafor back. What is one man's trash, should then be the Bears' treasure because Okafor fits like a glove with Chicago.
Another better suited situational rusher, the 27-year-old Okafor is a spark plug as a pass rusher. Most bull rush and power guys don't create that energy off the edge. Especially off the bench. Okafor, at a stocky 6-foot-4, 261 pounds, does exactly that. Deploy him in a key passing situation and watch him make at least a timely pressure.
Starting 10 games opposite First-Team All-Pro Cameron Jordan helped Okafor thrive more than normal last year. It would be a disservice to say he could only produce because of an elite player's presence. For the most part, Okafor has been a generally solid pass rusher who creates good pressure and sometimes finishes plays to the ground throughout his time in the NFL. That's an independent evaluation regardless of who is playing with him on the defensive front. The caliber of player working with Okafor is merely gravy on the positives he brings to the table.
If the Bears were to pursue Okafor in a capacity at outside linebacker, they can also know that he too is a plus defender. 43 tackles along with an underrated leverage game attests to that notion. A discipline that can make a short career a long one because he at least does one thing well.
Okafor, in that respect, isn't a one-trick pony. Because he does everything that's asked of him at an above average level. He offers a complete edge game the Cardinals missed out on in letting him go to the Saints, that New Orleans will now miss out on in letting him leave once more.
Of necessary note, as Okafor hits the prime of his career, he's not going to be taking one-year deals at $2 million with limited guarantees. Fresh contract terms that would lead him to Chicago should center around three years for $12 million, with $6 million guaranteed. Another bet on upside.
Regardless of what direction the Bears take to bolster their defensive edge in free agency, whatever price they pay pales in comparison to having a relentless pass rush again. This is a premium position that needs investments to match that premium ideal. Having more behind and opposite Floyd at outside linebacker is the objective priority over spending a little more money.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.