When an NFL club only wins three games during a season, we all know the defensive roster must be weak. Such was the case for the Chicago Bears' defense in 2022. Now as we get ready for OTAs to begin, the defensive roster looks much different, and there will still probably be more changes/additions in the near future.
Let's take a look by position group.
Let's be honest, the defensive line was awful in 2022, as they couldn't rush the passer or stop the run. We knew there would be wholesale changes, and that has been the case so far this off-season.
The defensive tackle group only has one holdover from last year, and that is 3-technique Justin Jones. Jones was a UFA signing last year and is the only interior defensive lineman who plays reasonably well. With this being his second year in the scheme, he should show much improvement, especially because his supporting cast will be much stronger.
The nose tackle/1-technique will be free agent acquisition Andrew Billings formerly of the Las Vegas Raiders. It's my opinion that the signing of Billings is the most underrated acquisition this off-season. To say it mildly, Billings is excellent versus the run.
Billings is not tall at 6'1, but he is a sturdy 310 pounds with long arms and a 5.0 40 time. He is perhaps the strongest player currently playing in the NFL. While in high school in Texas, his powerlifting numbers are legendary. As an 18-year-old he won the state powerlifting title with record numbers as he benched 500 pounds, squatted 805 pounds, and deadlifted 705 pounds.
On the field, he plays with that strength and power. While he is average as a pass rusher, he eats up blocks in the run game, never gives ground, and handles double teams like they were 1-on-1 blocks. His presence will immediately strengthen the run defense and help Jones tremendously.
In the recent Draft, the Bears used two high picks on interior defensive linemen. In the second round the Bears took Gervon Dexter from Florida, who is a very big, strong and athletic 1-Tech who can also play the 3-tech. In the third round, the Bears selected South Carolina 3-tech Zacch Pickens who is also strong, fast and athletic for his size.
The Bears prefer to utilize a 4-man rotation with the interior DLine and with those four the Interior line play should improve dramatically.
As bad as the interior line played last year, the pass rush from the defensive ends was worse. Again, there is a large turnover of players on the roster with only Trevis Gipson and second-year man Dominique Robinson back.
Gipson's play fell off from 2021 to 2022, and he is far from a sure shot to make this year's roster. Robinson has speed and talent but is still raw, as this is only his fourth season as a DE. In free agency, the Bears signed two players, the first being DeMarcus Walker, who had 7.0 sacks last year in Denver. Walker has the capability of also playing inside for pass rush situations. The other signee was former Texan and Seahawk Rasheem Green, who has recorded 10 sacks over the last two seasons.
Walker and Green are more left end types because of their strong play versus the run. There is still a need for a speed rusher on the right side as Robinson isn't quite ready to be the lead man right now. Friday during an interview on 670 the Score, General Manager Ryan Poles stated that an addition could come "soon" either by trade or free agent signing. Who knows who that player will be?
Many fans feel it could be Chase Young from Washington. Personally, I can't see that happening. Young has missed most of the last two seasons with a horrific knee injury, and who knows if he is healthy. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract that pays a guaranteed $11M this year. I can't see Poles making that type of investment and risk on a player with an uncertain future coming off his injury. We'll know soon enough. The Bears will most likely keep eight total defensive linemen, so when that new player comes in, Gipson's job is then at risk.
Like with the defensive line, the linebacker room looks much different than it did a year ago. The two biggest names signed during free agency were linebackers. From Buffalo, the Bears got Mike linebacker Tremaine Edmunds who had a very strong 2022 for the Bills. Edmunds has Bian Urlacher size, speed and athleticism, let's hope he can become a similar type player. The money the Bears paid him says they feel he can.
From Philly, the Bears signed Will linebacker T.J. Edwards, who grew up in nearby Lake Villa as a huge Bears fan. Edwards has played at a Pro Bowl level for the last two years. He is very instinctive and productive in both the run and pass game.
The third linebacker signee is strongside Dylan Cole who played with Tennessee the last two years. He's an excellent special teams’ player to go along with his play at Sam. He'll compete with holdover Jack Sanborn who played very well as a UDFA last year.
For most of 2022 the Bears kept only five linebackers on the 53-man roster. If that is the case this year, the fifth player will be rookie fifth-round draft pick Noah Sewell who had an outstanding career at Oregon.
If the Bears decide to keep six linebackers active, it would be a competition from the following three players. Stealing Weatherford was picked up off waivers from the Colts following the final cutdown. He had a strong pre-season in Indy and showed good special teams ability here. Demarcus Gates spent most of the year on the practice squad but showed talent when he got a chance to play. The third player is former Raider Terrell Lewis, who at 6'5 – 260, also has some defensive end experience.
I felt that despite numerous injuries, the secondary played reasonably well last year. Because of the injuries, numerous young players who were UDFA'a a year ago performed well. With the Bears drafting two corners and a safety last month, the competition for jobs figures to be healthy come training camp.
The leader of the corner group is fourth-year man Jaylon Johnson. Johnson is a physical corner with size, length and speed and is excellent in man and press coverage. Opposite Johnson is Kindle Vildor, who is not what I would call a fan favorite. That said, I feel Vildor played the best football of his career last year before being injured in game 11. Since his rookie year, he has shown vast improvement.
When Vildor got injured, followed by Johnson, two rookie corners got a chance to play, and both flashed. Jaylon Jones and Josh Blackwell are speed guys with length. While they have cover skills, they need to become more physical in the run game and as tacklers in general.
The Bears spent a high and midround pick on corners last month in the Draft, and both are excellent prospects. Tyrique Stevenson is a physical press corner with ball skills. Terell Smith from Minnesota is very similar and has equal size (6'0 – 200). Both have great speed and should upgrade the position.
The slot corner is last year's second-round pick, Kyler Gordon. Gordon started slowly as a rookie but played very well the second half of the season. His best football is in front of him.
The safety duo is led by veteran Eddie Jackson who, after a couple of down years, played very well in the new scheme last year. I expect Jackson to be even better this year. The strong safety is second-round '22 pick Jaquan Brisker. Brisker is just what you want at strong safety as he can cover tight ends and give excellent run support.
The backups going into OTA's are young guys who don't have much experience. Elijah Hicks was a late round pick a year ago and didn't get much playtime. This year in the seventh round, the Bears selected Kendall Williamson, who is a hard hitter from Stanford. He fits the mold as a backup strong safety.
Last year the primary backup at safety was DeAndre Houston-Carson, who has perhaps his best season since coming into the League. Houston-Carson is a free agent who is still available. It would not surprise me if the Bears bring him back in the near future, especially if the young guys show they aren't quite ready for prime time in OTAs.
Overall, on paper, the defense is much improved. They are still a solid edge pass rusher away from being a top half of the League defense, if not higher. Last year the Bears lost a number of games because the defense just couldn't hold up. I don't see the same thing happening in 2023.