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The Layman’s Guide to Bears Free Agency: Outside Linebackers

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Have you ever gone into free agency and hear scores of names but aren’t quite sure who these players are? Well, you’re not alone.

St Louis Rams v San Francisco 49ers
Aaron Lynch
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Hello Again Bears fans. It is time to wrap up this series by looking at arguably the most important position that needs to be upgraded: outside linebacker. If you missed the first six pieces about the backup quarterback, wide receiver, “joker” tight end, backup running back, offensive/defensive line positions, or cornerbacks, you can find them here, here, here, here, here and here respectively.

It isn’t a stretch to say that the pass rush is what Drives this defense. Vic Fangio prefers to send four rushers the majority of the time, so having the ability to rush with only your defensive line and outside linebackers is a major key to success. The past two seasons, it felt like Leonard Floyd was the only outside threat. It felt like listening to a record but only one speaker was working instead of having two players Moving In Stereo.

With the departure of Willie Young and Pernell McPhee coupled with Lamarr Houston and Sam Acho being free agents, it is clear that Ryan Pace will need to Shake It Up at the position. So at the moment, Leonard Floyd, You’re All I’ve Got Tonight. Although I would personally bring Acho back. He is excellent on special teams and he had, by far, his best season with the Bears last year. But Acho is a bottom of the depth chart rotational piece. The Bears still need to add two players that will slot in ahead of him, including the starter.

The problem here is there are no obvious solutions at the position. There are some guys with ties to Fangio, some with high upside, and others that may or may not fit the scheme. It would be preferable to bring in a player or two that had some staying power. My fear after looking over the available talent is that they all fall short of that goal. There is always the possibility that some veteran cuts come after the draft, so this list is likely not final.

There is a silver lining here and that is the fact that these players aren’t likely to break the bank. With the speculation about which players might be joining the Bears next week, it is a bonus to have a position that can be addressed without 8-figure salaries. With that said, I think these are ultimately rotational players or early-season bridges to the draft pick(s) that are almost assuredly going to be joining the team.

So let’s let the Good Time Roll and head to the film vault...Let’s Go!

Note: In the previous installments I shied away from players that were not currently available. There is one player that we are taking a look at that is a restricted free agent and depending on cap situation and tender offered, might be available for the Bears.

Aaron Lynch

This is quite possibly the most obvious name on the list. Lynch had one of his most successful seasons as a rookie under Fangio’s tutelage. That success continued the next season as the 49ers played the same scheme. The past two years however have not been kind to Lynch. The hope here is that Fangio can resurrect his career while picking him up on a modest deal.

For this article, I went back to Lynch’s rookie season, so we can see exactly how Fangio used him. The first thing you notice is his speed. Being able to run down Russell Wilson from behind is impressive. The other is the fact that he could’ve let up on this but stuck with it and made the tackle for a 1-yard gain. This play is actually surprising to me as Lynch tested as one of the least athletic edge rushers that Fangio has ever drafted.

I really like how Lynch uses his hands here to get the tackle off-balance. This was a screen pass all the way but the violent jolt to the tackle almost throws this entire play off-kilter. He is probably a bit more of a power player than a speed player, but he is more athletic than guys like Houston or McPhee.

While the sack portion of this play isn’t terribly impressive with the receiver missing the block, but it’s the quickness off the ball and the immediate play recognition that stands out to me. You can see about mid way through the rush that he dips slightly, this is where he recognizes the roll out and traps Wilson for the sack.

There are some easy dots to connect between Lynch and the Bears but there are some issues as well. There were some rumblings that Fangio didn’t care for Lynch, coupled with his weight gain and lack of production, and this may not seem like the slam-dunk it once was. As far as reclamation projects go, this is certainly one that I can see working out, so long as the Lynch and Fangio issues are behind them both.

Jeremiah Attaochu

Where Lynch was more of a power rusher that could pair nicely opposite Floyd, Attaochu would be like having another speed rusher. There is nothing wrong with either approach in my opinion, and personally, I would like to have as many flavors of pass rusher on this team as possible. After having a solid first two seasons, Attaochu was relegated to a backup role and was a forgotten man this past year. A change of scenery and scheme would likely be just what the doctor ordered.

I like outside linebackers that have really good first-step quickness. You can see here that Attaochu get’s across the face of Heath Miller right at the snap of the ball. He does exactly what the backside player should do and follows the heels of the offensive lineman to bring down Le’Veon Bell for a loss.

I am definitely a “motor” guy. This is a great job of beating the tackle at the snap, which flushes the slippery Aaron Rodgers away from him, but he doesn’t give up on this play and is rewarded with a sack.

Wait...so Attaochu annihilates Packers tackles and sacks Rodgers...? Sign me up!

Here is another reclamation project player. Fangio has had success with getting the most out of limited ability. This is a player that has upside because his is still only 24 years old and has some legitimate speed and bend off the edge. Attaochu would also likely come at a relatively small price tag due to the last two seasons of almost no production. My guess is that we ultimately sign someone that fits the buy-low, high-upside mold at outside linebacker.

Alex Okafor

Unlike the first two names, this player has had pretty steady production throughout his career. Another power rusher, Okafor is a guy that I think could be a starter on this team, even if that means he is a 2-down player or a tackle on nickel downs. While he is a little bit older than the first two, at 27, he should still be able to see a 3 or 4-year contract through.

I think that Okafor is a guy that can play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme because of his length. But this play shows the ability to use his strength to set the edge and get off of the block to make the tackle for no gain.

When I watch Okafor play, he reminds me of Houston but younger, healthier, and more in the Fangio mold of players. He isn’t terribly quick and plays a little stiff but if the Bears want to add size and strength to their front, then this is guy for them.

Wait...MORE destroying Packers tackles and quarterbacks??? Yes please!

If the Bears don’t think they can get a complete player in the draft and want to look at a smaller, pass rush specialist, Okafor could be their man. He is a guy that could play outside linebacker in base defense and then kick inside in nickel. That is probably the way that he fits this team the best. If the Bears think that someone like Harold Landry, Josh Sweat, or Ogbonnia Okoronkwo are players who fit the bill in the second round, then Okafor makes a ton of sense.

Shaquil Barrett

As noted above, Barrett isn’t an unrestricted free agent and we don’t know exactly what it would take to sign him. If it is a second-round tender (giving up a second-round pick), then I am going to pass, but if it is an original-round tender, then sign him up! Barrett was an undrafted free agent, so the Bears wouldn’t have to give anything up, but the Broncos still have the right to match. So the Bears would need to front load this deal to prevent the Broncos from matching.

Much like the play from Attaochu, you see a player that is willing to work and has good play recognition. Barrett’s quickness is also on display here. The ability to take a shot from the tight end and be in position to make the tackle within one step is impressive.

Barrett is definitely shorter than what Fangio generally likes but he uses a combination of quickness and bend to get the most out of his length. Watch his hands, this is what separates a guy who relies only on speed from a more complete pass rusher.

You can see here that Barrett has some refined pass rushing techniques. This is an impressive rush. He stutter steps slightly as he goes up-field and then uses that bend to get under the tackle and knock the ball out of Derek Carr’s hand for the strip-sack.

This would be my first choice for the Bears. They desperately need another pass rusher on this team. If they have a chance to sign Barrett and potentially bring back Houston and Acho, that would take a lot of pressure off of the draft. As it stands right now, drafting an outside linebacker early is almost a foregone conclusion. If they were able to get a high-upside, developmental player later, that could put them in position to take advantage of the positions that this draft is really deep in, like cornerback, wide receiver, and running back.

Barrett is probably the only player that could truly alter their draft plans, the others are helpful and would add to the team, but they don’t tilt the field. This team needs to take advantage of the fact that it has a fair amount of money to spend. If the approach to free agency is right, that can open up the possibilities in the draft and allow them to try and hit a few home runs. If not, then they will have to reach for needs, which usually doesn’t turn out very well.

Hopefully Pace can find what the Bears need to give the pass rush a boost. Nothing would make me happier than to hear Fangio say about one of these additions “you’re Just What I Needed!”