In 2018, the Bears had football’s best defense. In fact, they had one of football’s best defense’s ever. That’s what happens when there’s a genuine difference maker or outright superstar at every level of the unit. Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks with their hands in the ground. Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan locking down tight ends and showcasing special instinct. Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson turning in All-Pro campaigns as ballhawks even a defensive-rich franchise like the Bears had never seen. And a savvy, no-bullshit maestro in Vic Fangio masterfully pulling all the strings.
That era, that blip of a season that almost feels as if it happened a decade ago, is now over.
While Vic Fangio is still coaching Kyle Fuller, both are now employed by the Denver Broncos. The new defensive coordinator, Sean Desai, is a justifiably respected man around Halas Hall, but that doesn’t change the reality of a green first-time coordinator. Trevathan has lost a noticeable step, and is probably more of a two-down linebacker than the all-around defensive leader he once was. The next pass Eddie Jackson intercepts will be his first since 2019, in the Before Times. Mack and Hicks might still be at or near the the tops of their games, and both had top-tier 2020’s to show for it, but they are in their 30s now. For most NFL players, star or not, that is known as the second phase of a career. Their time at the top might not be as long as anyone likes in Lake Forest.
In part of an off-season expectations roundtable, the WCG staff debates the merits of a defensive unit once lauded in the highest esteem. Better days might be ahead, depending on your perspective.
In case you missed it:
Is the Bears’ defense better, worse, or about the same as last year?
Erik Duerrwaechter: Worse
There’s no excuse for cutting Kyle Fuller. Your homegrown All-Pro corner should never be a candidate for a cap casualty, even in unforeseen circumstances. I do believe Desmond Trufant will be okay to start alongside de facto CB1, Jaylon Johnson. But still, there’s a hole at safety (again) and not a lot of depth in the secondary.
Now, up front, the depth is certainly better. Akiem Hicks will be brought back in 2021, Eddie Goldman is set to return following his opt-out, and depth pieces have been added. The outside linebacker position has a nice third wheel in Jeremiah Attaochu, and Christian “Big Cheese” Jones returns to back up the inside guys. My bet is the Bears plan on compensating for questions in the secondary with a stronger effort to apply pressure up front. Or, to return to “violating protections” as Vic Fangio would say. They still need better long-term answers added at corner and safety.
Will Robinson: Marginal downgrade
Getting Goldman back: Upgrade
Moving from Buster Skrine to Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley: Minor Downgrade
Moving from Kyle Fuller to Desmond Trufant (ignoring health): Marginal Downgrade
Depth loss vs Depth gain: Push
Ken Mitchell: Significantly worse
Obviously, you lose a Kyle Fuller and that weakens the defense. Period. There’s no getting around that. Getting Eddie Goldman back is a big deal, and I like a couple of the new additions, but the real question is how the Bears solve the hole at corner. The defense is currently significantly weaker.
Robert Zeglinski: Worse
Right now, they don’t have a cornerback you could trust (both Jaylon Johnson and Desmond Trufant have significant injury histories), they still have no legitimate edge rusher opposite Khalil Mack, and everyone is a year older. Some of the new depth will make a difference, but the starters in key, questionable spots still have to be better, as usual. They’re definitively worse. We’ll see on the degree come September.
Josh Sunderbruch: Worse
They’re getting back Eddie Goldman but losing Kyle Fuller, they still have Robert Quinn and everyone is a year older. Offenses have tape on Johnson, and 2nd-year corners struggle. This is worse.
Lester Wiltfong Jr.: Worse
You release a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback and you become worse, but such is the life on an NFL team when the salary cap drops for the first time in its history. New defensive coordinator Sean Desai will need to bring fresh ideas to the table and get back to some of the disguised coverages we saw when his mentor Vic Fangio was calling plays. Goldman’s return will help, but there are too many if’s on the Bears defense right now.
Jack R. Salo: Worse
Another year older, more expensive, and without their star cornerback. This is the kind of defense built to keep a young, developing offense within reach of late-game heroics. We know how that development went, most noticeably at the quarterback position. I could understand an argument that the Bears defense compared to last year’s is a push, with Eddie Goldman back and Roquan Smith hungry for his first Pro Bowl. But I don’t see how this defense had a net improvement.
Sam Householder: Worse
I think this one has to be worse. Desmond Trufant is a step down from Kyle Fuller, a former All-Pro. Fuller, as it is, should probably go down as a top-five corner in franchise history. Teams threw to the other side of the field because of him. That is a huge loss. Assuming the Bears get Eddie Goldman back, then outside of that they should be okay. But Fuller’s loss is big. And they still need a safety (although Tashaun Gipson was pretty average).
Robert Schmitz: Worse
They’re worse without much doubt. The Bears lost their CB1, their SAF2, and their nickel and slot cornerback while Danny Trevathan and Akiem Hicks aged a year. I like the Christian Jones edition more than most, but given we’re writing this before the draft, you can’t say they’re a better defense now that both starting cornerbacks have injury issues and Deon Bush and Duke Shelley are slated starters. Goldman coming back is nice, but I don’t think his return is enough to offset issues elsewhere (and that assumes he comes back strong after a year off).
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