Déjà vu is a French term used to say a person is describing already having had a life experience. It’s a weird sense of familiarity that can be incredibly disorienting. In regards to the Bears’ current frail edge rush situation and the gaping holes dotted around it - Déjà vu is exactly what you should be feeling now. Dearest reader, this is a predictable Bears movie of dangerously low depth and talent that’s been seen before.
It wasn’t long ago the Bears had arguably the worst receiving corps in the NFL. In fact, it was roughly eight months ago on New Year’s Eve 2017 when they last played a regular season game with the all-inspiring Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy, and Dontrelle Inman as their primary trio. I’m absolutely positive Vikings defenders were quaking in their boots at the challenge.
The story of the Bears’ 2017 blatant receiving issues was one of the hot topics of last season. In a year where Chicago had drafted a quarterback No. 2 overall in Mitchell Trubisky, they entered the season with Kevin White, Markus Wheaton, Wright, and Bellamy as their top options. In a year where Trubisky was inevitably going to appear regardless of what happened with Mike Glennon, the Bears were prepared to buoy the young quarterback with a failed first round pick (according to status) and a bunch of glorified No. 3 and No. 4 options. That’s what we call not planning ahead.
An injury to former No. 1 Cameron Meredith suffered in Week 3 of the preseason didn’t help. But it should be a little disconcerting that the Bears’ receiving corps effectively collapsed in on themselves after the loss of a player with a career 77 receptions.
In the end, the Bears and general manager Ryan Pace especially, had only themselves to blame for the weapons they surrounded Trubisky with: lame duck trade deadline acquisitions for guys such as Inman not withstanding.
What did the Bears do in advance to remedy this situation?
Instead of entering 2017 with at least a semblance of mediocrity, let alone utter disappointment at receiver, they elected to wait until this spring to fix their playmaking problems in two fell free agent and draft swoops. They were comfortable with what unproven players they had, and sat on their hands. Instead of helping the team be as competitive as possible in the present moment while simultaneously planning for the future, Pace elected to just be patient for an all-you-can-eat buffet in the off-season.
Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller are undoubtedly nice additions to the 2018 squad if they pan out. Yet the Bears shouldn’t have been that desperate or waited that long to make moves of this kind.
Flash forward to the present, and pattern becomes habit as the Bears again sit in a similar spot of having largely neglected a more glaring roster hole at pass rusher. That’s all the while likely putting if off for next year while relying on a host of unproven and substandard players in the meantime. Sound familiar?
The Bears no longer have receiver issues, yet now have significant pass rush worries. Have no fear, the desire to do anything to fix it was satiated awhile back.
No, the Bears are not trading for Khalil Mack. And no, there really isn’t much of many comfortable edge options left for improvement either. The only real choice the Bears have left themselves with in 2018 is to simply wait until a loaded free agent and draft class in 2019. Two acquisition periods they’ll no doubt fully take advantage of while another roster hole inevitably opens itself up. A never-ending game of football Whack-A-Mole.
So, with that negligence in mind, this supposed Chicago defense on the rise that apparently didn’t need to make any major additions aside from Roquan Smith at inside linebacker, is now ready to ascend to elite? Akiem Hicks said back in April’s organized team activities that this is a unit “looking for top five”, meaning a statistical jump to top five. Most would consider a top five defense an elite defense.
The Bears are somehow going to make that elite leap without much of any reliability at one of football’s three most important positions on the defensive edge. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see how it plays out for them.
Just how dire is the Bears’ edge situation?
There’s Leonard Floyd, who has missed 10 games in two years and will now operate with eight fully functional fingers for the foreseeable future. There’s Sam Acho, who has never been more than a solid No. 3 or No. 4 pass rusher, he and each of his 17 sacks in seven NFL seasons. Then, there’s Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving, a sixth rounder and undrafted free agent, respectively, who can only flash against the bottom of the Ravens roster in the Hall of Fame Game.
Finish this hapless roundabout with Aaron Lynch, a player that hasn’t practiced or played since the first day of training camp, and for whatever reason was considered a quality starting stopgap despite only starting three games in the last two seasons, and you have the recipe for a 2017 receiver styled disaster. Lynch is as obvious of a future roster cut on the Bears’ defensive depth chart as there is. He’s also the best example of an edge position group teetering on the brink. And by brink, they’re hanging on the edge (no pun intended) with only a few fingers holding on.
Were the Bears going to be a Super Bowl contender in 2018? Probably not.
A new head coach in Matt Nagy and the second year of Trubisky growing up paints the picture of a young team and offense that still has to get it’s legs under it. Continuity matters in the NFL. Turnarounds like the Eagles and Rams enjoyed last year are extremely rare.
Did the Bears do well to push off other roster needs like the defensive edge, in likely understanding that they’re not contenders this season? Absolutely not.
Their currently constructed and somehow still not finished core has been gestating for four off-seasons, waiting for a moment to break through. Much of Chicago’s best defensive players like Floyd and Kyle Fuller will be 26-years-old by the time the Bears visit the Packers in Week 1. Some, like Hicks and Danny Trevathan, are already an eye-popping 28. That moment may never come at this rate.
You have to pay up and start maximizing your gathered talent every chance and year you get. Unfortunately, the Bears and Pace are operating on borrowed time they don’t have anymore. In an NFL where championship cores and windows sometimes last three to four years (at best), they’re going into a season with sunk costs at a crucial position thanks to egregious mismanagement.
No football team is perfect and everyone has an Achilles heel they learn to protect. It’s the contenders and relevant organizations that at least make an admirable effort to put shoddy cement over those roster potholes before an eventual long term fix is made. It’s the contenders and relevant organizations that understand waiting to fix one position in a power move, leaves you susceptible to another weakness opening up when you’ve exhausted most of your best resources for that off-season.
Any year where you knowingly go in with a major roster weakness, despite options being present beforehand (Connor Barwin? Alex Okafor? Perhaps making a draft pick before the sixth round?), you’re handicapping yourself in a year to be wasted. It’s stubborn and lacks even the slightest hint of foresight.
When the 2019 off-season rolls around the Bears will need to find an edge pass rusher, a future starting offensive tackle, and likely at least one boundary cornerback.
Expect Pace and company to push their poker hand in on fixing two of those crucial positions, and subsequently procrastinate on the odd man left out, pushing needed repairs to the ensuing year. Expect them to waste time they don’t have. And expect another strangely familiar fit of Bears roster-building Déjà vu in the future.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer for Windy City Gridiron, The Rock River Times, The Athletic Chicago, and other fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.