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What the Bears can do to “fix” their outside linebacker problem

The Bears face a major issue with their edge pass rush. But not all is lost. Sort of.

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Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

No plan in the NFL goes 100 percent as planned. Even after the most careful of planning, setbacks can be guaranteed.

This brings us to the Chicago Bears and their current outside linebacker situation.

Their edge depth has been scrutinized long before the 2018 off-season even began, despite seeing a complete overhaul dating back to 2015. With the expected emergence of the young Leonard Floyd, came the departure of several veterans. Gone are the likes of formerly prized free agent signings in Pernell McPhee, Lamarr Houston, and Willie Young.

Questions have increased recently with the latest injury to Floyd. Where the current expectation is for him to be ready and available by Week 1 of the regular season, he’ll certainly have an uphill battle ahead of him as a few broken fingers on his hand heal from a surgical procedure. What’s more important is seeing how the rest of the Bears’ position group responds to the situation.

How do the Bears plan on addressing their edge rush position? That, as of right now, is anyone’s guess. Here are possible scenarios that could take place between now and the 2018 regular season.

Adjusting strategy

Earlier this off season, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio expressed a preference for improving his defense from within.

“There’s no doubt strides were made,” Fangio said. “Not enough. I think it’s a wrong picture to paint that the defense was great and the rest of the team wasn’t. We were 5-11.

“If we were a great defense we’d have more than five wins. There’s a lot of room for improvement there — a lot — and we need to do that.”

Instead of throwing new players into the mix, Fangio could elect to roll with different coverages, alignments, and stunts that are aimed to ease the workload for his outside linebackers. The Bears have recently developed a glut of talent along the defensive line, and when healthy, their secondary has been producing plays throughout the preseason.

Plus, there’s the Roquan Smith factor: the defensive playbook has likely been vanilla in an attempt to mask his true intentions with both Smith and fellow inside linebacker Danny Trevathan. When Smith and Trevathan are finally on the field together, they’ll represent Chicago’s best tandem of inside linebackers in terms of athleticism, instincts, and versatility. From there, I’m sure Fangio looks to involve both players in different looks and pressure packages.

We’ve likely never seen Fangio unleash his full playbook in Chicago. After all, it’s taken a few years to rebuild a defense from scratch in terms of techniques and philosophies. Now he has arguably more talent than he’s ever had up to this point in his stay with Chicago. That could lead to him mixing it up aplenty.

Fangio shuffles the depth charts at various positions

Sometimes having a deep amount of talent at various positions can result in players having roles redefined. Fangio has already done before. For instance, he converted Roy Robertson-Harris from outside linebacker to defensive end. Another example is Deiondre’ Hall being moved from cornerback to safety. It’s happened before, and it could happen again.

It’s been rumored that Nick Kwiatkoski would see time at outside linebacker this season. During the Bears’ preseason, we haven’t seen that look yet, although we’ve seen plenty of blitzes called with Kwiatkoski as the added rusher. To his credit, he’s also flashed as a pass rusher when provided the opportunities, as he’s previously been ranked in the top ten among inside linebackers in pressures and pass-rush productivity.

Perhaps the Bears are waiting for Smith to take the field before experimenting with that pressure look. Though, I feel Kwiatkoski has more value as a super sub at inside linebacker, as opposed to trying him at a position he’s not familiar with.

Then, there’s an option that hasn’t been discussed much..

As previously mentioned, Robertson-Harris has moved once in his career. And I can see the line of reasoning why Fangio decided to do this: he’s taken a developmental player at outside linebacker and transformed him into a potentially dominant defensive lineman. He currently leads the NFL with 3.5 sacks registered during this preseason.

Hypothetically, the competition at the open defensive end position has been so close, that Fangio could elect to maximize Robertson-Harris’ talents by flexing him as a jumbo outside linebacker. He’s proven that he can set the edge fairly well, and he’s versatile enough to play from any technique up front.

I’m intrigued with the idea of Jonathan Bullard being at Chicago’s five-tech along with Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks in the base alignment. That leaves Robertson-Harris and Floyd as the outside linebackers.

Plus, the Bears have what looks to be adequate depth in rookie Bilal Nichols and John Jenkins. Adding Robertson-Harris into the rotations at both outside linebacker and defensive end would create headaches for offenses to counter.

What Fangio and his staff see is likely different, and he’ll do what he feels is best as the Grand Poobah of the Bears’ defense.

Pace scouts the bargain bins

There’s also the chance that Bears general manager Ryan Pace looks hard at the waiver wire for potential upgrades.

September 1st marks “Black Saturday” for front offices across the NFL. That date is the league’s deadline for teams to whittle their rosters down to 53 players. In the case of the Bears, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Pace monitors the transaction line closely to upgrade Chicago’s defensive edge.

In fact, their joint practices and preseason game against the Denver Broncos gave the Bears a close insight to targets once cuts start being announced. The last time the Bears had joint practice sessions was with the New England Patriots in 2016. Pace plucked Cre’von LeBlanc from the wires shortly after his release was made official. He could easily do this again with players like the Broncos’ Shane Ray — a former 1st round pick in 2015 — speculated as a potential roster casualty.

Then, there’s the idea of bringing back familiar faces who are available as free agents. I’d consider this a long shot, but veteran Lamarr Houston would make for a good signing. Yes, he was one of the more notorious free agent busts initially reeled in by former Bears general manager Phil Emery. Yet, in 23 career games under Fangio after that, Houston recorded 12 sacks. What’s more eye-opening is his impressive return in 2017, when he recorded four sacks in the final five games of the regular season.

Houston was originally signed by the Houston Texans in 2017 as a free agent, before being waived and later reclaimed by the Bears. If a deal gets done, I wouldn’t expect anything more than a one-year prove-it deal. This type of move isn’t the most exciting, but it would be an upgrade.

Pace goes for broke

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders
Could he be the newest member of the Bears’ defense?
Photo by Don Feria/Getty Images

There’s always the white whale option. It’s also the least likely, considering the sheer amount of wealth required in any trade offer.

This is, of course, talking about Khalil Mack, the All-Pro pass rusher of the Oakland Raiders: because he’s the only player I would consider worthy of any franchise-altering trade for the Bears. Dante Fowler Jr. of the Jacksonville Jaguars has been another name tossed around from time to time as a trade prospect. But let’s be frank: adding Mack to the Bears defense would be the greatest way to upgrade their lacking pass rush. Likewise, it’s going to cost the figurative king’s ransom to secure Mack’s contractual rights.

The last time a trade of a star pass rusher was made was in March of 2016 between the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots. All-Pro defender Chandler Jones was traded to the Cardinals in exchange for a second round pick and a player; in this case Jonathan Cooper. I see Mack’s value being the same if not more than what the Patriots ended up with in their haul. Two things that’ll potentially hurt Mack’s value, however, are him not practicing since the 2017 season ended (football shape), and his demands for a new contract (having to get him to sign an extension in a trade).

It’s not entirely impossible for such a trade to happen. Rather, as Mack’s holdout continues, the probabilities for any trade increase. Lately, it’s been reported over twelve teams have reached out to Oakland for a potential trade of the disgruntled star defender. It’s definitely a situation that the Raiders would rather get out of instead of allowing it to fester. Whether that results in a trade, or their front office gives in to Mack’s demands, is completely up for debate.

What helps the Bears’ odds in getting Mack is that they have more than enough immediate cap space to give him a respectable deal if his rights are traded to Chicago. They’re also in a comfortable situation long term, with most of their core players locked up under team-friendly deals. Additionally, and completely in my opinion, Raiders coach Jon Gruden has a history of making questionable moves (Christian Hackenberg says hello.)

If it’s worth anything — and it’s not worth much — the Bears are currently one of the favorites in terms of odds on the good old betting lines. Hey, something is better than nothing.

Chances are, not only will Chicago not trade for Mack, but there’s a possibility they weren’t even among those NFL teams who seriously inquired about Mack’s availability.

What’s more, is the Bears are already at a disadvantage in terms of available resources to make a deal. They utilized their second round pick of the 2019 draft in a trade to eventually claim the right to draft Anthony Miller. Their goal should be to string successful drafts together, as opposed to mortgaging their future on high-risk deals. Besides, they also have a few players deserving of long-term extensions in waiting with Eddie Goldman and Adrian Amos in line.

Anything can happen, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Pace eventually sniffs around the trade market for potential upgrades. If the Bears did land Mack, it’d make their defense elite. It’s just such a huge risk in terms of the likely cost and competition they’ll face for his services.