When it comes to attacking the opposing quarterback off the edge, the Chicago Bears have one consistent threat, and they have another guy that has a track record of doing it but was a disappointment a year ago. Besides those two, there really isn’t another viable pass rushing outside linebacker on the team.
The NFL is a quarterback driven league, so it makes sense to find as many guys as possible that can sack him, and the Bears clearly need to upgrade in that area.
Here’s where the Bears currently stand at the outside linebacker position.
Khalil Mack - Signed through 2024 - Mack may not have the eyepopping sack numbers we’ll all want to see, but he’s one of the best edge rushers in the game today. He makes quarterbacks uncomfortable, he makes offensive tackles nervous, and he creates sacks and pressures for his teammates. Also, it’s not sexy, but few can set the edge as good as he does against the run.
Here’s some of what Pro Football Focus had to say in their Final 2020 NFL pass-rush rankings.
He may have logged just nine sacks during the year, but Mack finished the regular season as PFF’s highest-graded edge defender thanks to 90-plus PFF grades both as a run defender and pass rusher. He was one of five edge defenders in the NFL to record a pass-rush win rate of 20.0% or higher this season.
The 2nd-Team All-Pro is a regular on year end top player lists and offenses account for him on every single snap. I would like to see the Bears scale back on some of his reps (he played 84% of the time in 2020), because he could be even more impactful if he was fresher and healthier. But that won’t happen until they identify another threat at the position.
Robert Quinn - Signed through 2024 - Hindsight tells us that signing Quinn was a mistake. There were reports of an injury he was fighting through most of the year, but he was handed that big contract to be a difference maker and he wasn’t.
He’s obviously not the all around player that Mack is, or even that his predecessor Leonard Floyd was, so that $30 million guaranteed he received was to get after the quarterback. He ended up with a career low 2 sacks, but a deeper look shows it wasn’t that bad.
PFF had him down as one of four Bears with a better than 10% pressure rate, but don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day he’s paid to get to the QB and he didn’t do that enough. He’ll need a big bounce back year in 2021 because with that contract he’s not going anywhere.
Trevis Gipson - Signed through 2023 - Gipson was on the 53-man roster all year, but he only made it into 7 games. Transitioning from playing as a college defensive end to a professional linebacker was always going to take some time, so we should start to see more of what he has to offer in 2021.
Barkevious Mingo - Free agent - His 2.5 sacks a year ago was his most since he had 5 during his rookie season of 2013, and he showed a nice all around game as the OLB3 in 2020. His value showed up in the third phase too where he played 82% of their snaps. While I’d like to see a better edge rusher get some reps as an outside linebacker reserve in 2021, I also think Mingo should come back to compete for a spot on this team.
James Vaughters - Exclusive rights free agent - After only playing a handful of snaps in 2019, Vaughters cracked the regular rotation in 2020 with 23% of the team’s snaps on defense and 34% of their special teams’ snaps. As an ERFA it’s likley the Bears bring him back to compete for a backup job in 2021. EDIT: The Bears did re-sign Vaughters for one more year.
Ledarius Mack - Signed through 2021 - The Bears have listed Ledarius Mack as a linebacker on their practice squad all year long, so I’m just assuming based on his college tape that he’s been working as an outside linebacker/edge rusher. But with no preseason or training camp practices to watch a year ago, it’s certainly possible that the 6’1, 240 pounder has been transitioning to inside linebacker.
2021 OUTLOOK - You can never have enough pass rushers in today’s NFL, but with the Bears being so heavily invested at the position already, don’t expect any big additions in free agency at outside linebacker. If they do spend, it’ll probably just be Mingo and maybe a low cost reclamation project type — à la Aaron Lynch from a couple years ago.
Due to their offensive deficiencies, I wouldn’t expect an OLB in the draft until day three, but if there’s a guy slipping that’s high on their board I could see them pulling the trigger.
We often see player take a big leap in production from year one to year two, so it would be huge for Gipson to come into the offseason and take hold of that number three edge rusher role.
But the Bears are also going to need Quinn to live up to that contract and provide some help opposite Mack.
Quinn bouncing back and Gipson developing would be the best case scenario for this position group.
I know a lot of fans are hopeful that the younger Mack can be a diamond in the rough, but he was a situational pass rusher and special teamer in college at Buffalo, so for him to make a leap to productive NFL player is a big one.
How do you see the Bears OLB room shaping up in 2021?