Ryan Poles has had a busy week. Not only did he go out and make a major acquisition trading a second round pick for Montez Sweat, but he also kept the beef along the interior of the defensive line inking Andrew Billings to a 2-year contract extension.
Update: And he extended Sweat to a 4-year deal. (link)
So with these two moves, what does the Chicago Bears’ defensive line look like moving forward and just how close are they to making this a strong unit?
Ryan Poles stressed the importance of building through the trenches, and while neither unit is there, both have foundational pieces that show that they are improving.
Let’s look at the current defensive line.
The following players have their deals expire at the end of the year: Yannick Ngakoue, Justin Jones and Rasheem Green. As of now, I don’t see any reason any of them would be brought back for 2024. Neither have consistently performed well compared to their salaries.
One other player who is still under contract is Dominique Robinson. He will have two years remaining on his rookie contract, and while it’s possible he remains on the practice squad for 2024 or the 9th defensive lineman on the 53-man roster, he hasn’t shown any promise this season, and I have a hard time imagining the Bears will look to him for any kind of significant contribution.
Any defensive line needs depth. You don’t need 4 to win. You need at least 6, and probably 7 solid defensive linemen to make it work.
Let’s assume the Bears remain a 4-3 base for 2024. They have their top edge in Montez Sweat, I’m going to assume Sweat is extended because Ryan Poles would never trade away a second-round pick and not have him back on the team. They’ll have DeMarcus Walker, who will be rotating between playing on the inside and outside. They’ll now have their top nose tackle in Andrew Billings, and they’ll have second-year players Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens.
While it’s too early to know what Dexter and Pickens are going to be, from what I’ve seen, I think Dexter is going to be a solid rotational piece, and Pickens will be a solid depth piece, but I don’t see either of the becoming true disruptors.
So if the Bears are going to have 9 defensive linemen on the roster next year, they have their DL1 in Sweat, their DL3 in Walker, their DL4 in Billings, their DL6 in Dexter, their DL7 in Pickens and their DL9 in Robinson.
That leaves them needing a DL2 (the 3-Tech), their DL5 (the 3rd Edge), and their DL8 (the 4th Edge).
After spending a second-round pick to get Sweat, I have a hard time believing Poles would use one of his first-round picks on an Edge. But I could absolutely see Poles using a day 3 pick on a developmental edge like he tried with Robinson. That’s their DL8.
Their 3rd edge (or potentially 2nd edge, with Walker being the 3rd edge) will most likely come in free agency. They should be able to land a solid contributing player in free agency and sign one to a similar type of deal that they brought in Walker, perhaps a bit more depending on who actually makes it to free agency after internal extensions are finished.
What they still need is a truly disruptive 3-tech. They will continue to hope that Dexter becomes that guy, but he’s not flashing enough at this point. Walker can play the 3-tech, but not at the level the Bears need. They don’t have that Akiem Hicks-type of player to really destroy an offensive play.
Is it possible someone like Chris Jones or Christian Wilkins makes it to free agency? If they do, you can imagine the Bears will be first in line with their cap space to offer a big deal, but the odds of that are low. If they look to the draft, Jer’Zhan Newton from Illinois will probably be the top interior defensive lineman off the board. Would the Bears use one of those high first-round picks on Newton?
Outside of that, there aren’t a lot of paths to landing that 3-tech. There’s a reason they are hard to come by because there are so few available. There are not even fifteen of them in the league.
Without the 3-tech, the Bears could have a decent defensive line with Sweat aboard, some development from Dexter and Pickens, and a little help in free agency. But for the Bears to have their defensive line become a strength rather than a weakness, they need to find a way to land a disruptive interior defensive lineman. If Ryan Poles finds a way to do that, this defensive line could become a top 10 unit in the league, but that is one giant “if.”