Don’t you just love the NFL offseason?
As a Bears fan, there’s nothing I’ve come to love more than the concept of building a roster through both free agency and the draft with the desire to improve upon the previous year and fill up holes on your roster. It’s the one time a year when everyone’s excited for the future, and considering my favorite team’s lack of success in recent years, sometimes the future can be the only exciting thing to look forward to.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Bears have an insane abundance of resources to upgrade their roster this offseason. We’ve talked a bit about their having the No. 1 pick, and there will be plenty of draft coverage to come from me and the rest of the WCG staff. That said, I wanted to take some time to look towards the more recent future and analyze NFL free agency.
It’s worth noting that there are many other talented defensive free agents slated to hit the open market in 2023, and this list doesn’t encompass every single available player. Rather, this list is to highlight some of the notable prospects who are both among the top players at their respective positions and could fit well in the Bears’ defensive scheme.
With that said, here are some of my top defensive options for the Bears in 2023 free agency.
All contract estimates come from Spotrac.
Commanders DT Daron Payne
Spotrac market value: $14.2 million
If there’s any player I believe the Bears should go all-out for, it’s Daron Payne.
Payne finished third in the NFL among interior defensive linemen with 11.5 sacks — with only one sack being unblocked — along with placing first in tackles for a loss with 18. He was eighth among defensive tackles in Points Saved per rush with 0.038 and tied for fifth with a PAR of 6.2. He also tied for fourth at his position with 47 pressures and tied for fourth with 21 quarterback hits. Needless to say, he was among the best pass-rushers in the NFL this year. That’s not all: only Christian Wilkins and Jonathan Allen had better average depth of tackle numbers in the run game than Payne at defensive tackle.
An explosive 3-technique defensive tackle who can rush the passer, Payne is everything you want in a defensive tackle in a system like the Bears’. Factor in that he’s only 25 years old, and it’s clear he will be a hot commodity in free agency. There’s always the chance the Commanders give him the franchise tag, but if he hits the open market, a strong argument can be made that he should be Chicago’s top target in the entire free agent market.
Eagles DT Javon Hargrave
Spotrac market value: $20.1 million
Javon Hargrave is listed as much more expensive than Daron Payne, and the former also turns 30 in February. I don’t think he ends up getting as much as Spotrac projects him at, though, which could be very good news for the Bears if they choose to pursue him.
I list those negatives out of the way first because the fact is that Hargrave is an incredibly good football player. His 11 sacks placed fourth among interior defensive linemen this year, and he, too, tied with Payne for the fourth-most quarterback hits for a defensive tackle at 21. His 42 pressures ranked seventh at his position, and he finished the 2022 season with a 78.2 PFF grade. It’s also worth noting that he placed 10th in terms of average tackle depth in the run game.
Hargrave probably wouldn’t get as long of a contract as Payne, but he would get a mammoth deal for the years a team would sign him for. With Jordan Davis waiting in the wings in Philadelphia, it would be surprising if Hargrave returned to the Eagles. This makes him a top-notch defensive option for the Bears and one who would instantly bring quickness, power and a high football IQ to their defensive line.
Broncos DT Dre’Mont Jones
Spotrac market value: $7.2 million
In case you haven’t picked up a common trend, the Bears could really use some upgrades at the defensive tackle position.
Jones has tallied 18.5 sacks over the last three seasons and has been a reliable defensive lineman for Denver’s interior defensive line during his time at the NFL level. He finished with 34 pressures and 16 quarterback hits in 13 games in 2022, and his ability to make his presence his felt in opposing backfields made him one of the most reliable defenders on a quality Broncos defense this year.
Though there’s a good chance Jones gets more than this on the open market, he should hypothetically come as a cheaper option than either Payne or Hargrave. If the Bears want a young defensive tackle to add to their roster — perhaps even in addition to a player like Payne or Hargrave — then Jones could be a suitable option.
Saints DE Marcus Davenport
Spotrac market value: $23.2 million
The price tag may seem steep for Marcus Davenport, and I admittedly think the annual price tag on him will be less expensive than what Spotrac lists it as. Regardless, he’s a very talented edge rusher, and if the Bears want to bring him aboard, they’ll have to pay a premium.
Davenport’s sack production took a massive dip in 2022, as he fell from 9 sacks the previous season to just 0.5 sacks in the 15 games he played this year. While that sounds discouraging on paper, he still finished with a 76.8 PFF grade. He finished with 33 pressures, 23 quarterback hits and a pressure rate on 12.8%. He’s a lengthy edge defender who’s a 96th-percentile athlete at the defensive end position.
As a 26-year-old defensive lineman with impressive athleticism and a bright future ahead of him, Davenport should have plenty of suitors should he hit free agency this offseason. The Bears didn’t do a good job of generating pressure off the edge this year, and if they want an explosive presence along their defensive line, he could be a realistic option for them.
Colts DE Yannick Ngakoue
Spotrac market value: $14.8 million
You’re telling me a proven, 7-year veteran at a position of need who hasn’t had fewer than 8 sacks in a single season is slated to hit free agency? Sign me up!
Yannick Ngakoue is coming off of a strong season with the Colts, during which he tallied 9.5 sacks in 15 games. He also finished with 42 pressures and 17 quarterback hits, and he tied for 10th in the NFL with 4 holding penalties drawn against him. The former Pro Bowl has been as consistent as they come in terms of generating sack production, as he has had 65 sacks over the course of his 7 seasons in the NFL. Regardless of scheme or what team he’s been on, he has been one of the more productive pass-rushers the league has to offer.
Ngakoue has been on five teams in the last 4 years, which might makes teams a bit wary to sign him to a long-term deal. That said, he’s an impressive pass-rusher who has done a very good job of putting up production over the course of his NFL career. The Bears could use someone like that!
Colts LB Bobby Okereke
Spotrac market value: $2.3 million
Last offseason, we saw the Bears bring in players with past experience working under their coaching staff like Equanimeous St. Brown, Lucas Patrick and Al-Quadin Muhammad. Though those signings didn’t provide incredibly fruitful results this year, Chicago might have the chance to make a bigger splash by signing Bobby Okereke.
The obvious connection here is that Okereke played under Bears head coach Matt Eberflus for four seasons in Indianapolis. He has been super productive in the last two seasons, he has a combined 283 tackles, and his production has increased each year that he’s played. In fact, his 151 tackles placed 10th in the NFL this year. He finished the 2022 season with a 72.9 PFF grade. Plus, he has 97th-percentile arm length and a 98th-percentile wingspan for a linebacker, which one can assume Eberflus is a big fan of.
Though Okereke doesn’t have fantastic advanced analytics, he’s a very good athlete with long arms, impressive pure tackling production and experience in the Bears’ current scheme. He might end up making significantly more money than what Spotrac projects, but either way, he seems like a realistic option for the Bears if they want to invest money at the linebacker position.
Buccaneers CB Jamel Dean
Spotrac market value: $8.7 million
The Bears have money to burn this offseason, and while cornerback is far from their biggest need, they still have a starting position opening alongside Jaylon Johnson and Kyler Gordon.
Dean allowed completions on just 55.4% of targets in the regular season, and that performance was a follow-up from allowing just 48.5% of completed targets in 2021. He has had 41 pass deflections in his four seasons with the Buccaneers, solidifying himself as one of the most underrated, high-quality starting cornerbacks in the NFL. He is a 99th-percentile athlete at cornerback with long arms and 4.3 speed, and that physical profile has translated to much success in the pros.
Someone like the much-improved Rock Ya-Sin could hypothetically make sense for the Bears given his ties to Eberflus and the current Bears’ coaching staff, but given Ya-Sin’s past struggles and experience being benched with the Colts under Eberflus, he might not be the best option. Dean is a reliable cornerback who would provide another rock-solid option to complete Chicago’s secondary.