It's not hard to remember that the Chicago Bears' defensive line in 2022 was probably the most disappointing position unit on the whole team. During the offseason, General Manager Ryan Poles has pretty much done a complete makeover of the group. The job isn't yet done, as the group is still missing a dominant edge pass rusher, but overall, the unit is much improved.
The most significant change with the defensive line is the interior, where there is one returnee, Justin Jones, who was signed as a free agent last year to play the 3-Tech position. The Bears spent two high draft choices on defensive tackles when they selected Gervon Dexter in the second round and Zacch Pickens in the third. They also signed free agent Andrew Billings who was with the Raiders last year.
Jones did not play as anticipated last year when he was signed. Looking back, it was not all his fault. His supporting cast inside was not very good, and if you notice, none were brought back for 2023. Jones has the ability to be disruptive by getting penetration and has better than average pass rush ability. With better players around him this year, he should be much more productive but don't expect him to have much more than five sacks, as he is adequate but not great as a pass rusher. Head Coach Matt Eberflus wants to rotate his defensive line, so the expectation is Jones will play about half the snaps.
The starting nose will more than likely be Billings. It's my opinion that he is the most unheralded signing this spring. At 6'1, Billing isn't tall, but he has length and is very explosive coming off the ball. He can penetrate and disrupt and will be excellent against the run.
Billings may be one of the strongest players in the entire League. In high school, he was the Texas state powerlifting champ with his three lifts (bench press, squat and deadlift) totaling a record 2010 pounds. That's when he was an 18-year-old teenager; he's stronger now!
Gervon Dexter has the ability to play both the nose (really a 1-Tech) or the 3-tech. He is big, strong and very athletic. In college, he played in a read-and-contain type scheme where he was mainly a 2-gap player keeping blockers off the linebackers. That won't be the case here, as in Flus' scheme the defensive tackles have to penetrate and disrupt. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the new scheme. What's nice is that the Bears' scheme plays into Dexter's natural traits. He has the talent to become very good.
As athletic as Dexter is, Zacch Pickins is even more athletic. He also can play either interior position, but I feel he would be best as a 3-Tech. With his length and explosiveness, he can give the Bears excellent penetration on run downs, and he also has very good inside pass rush skills. It's just a matter of learning how to play against NFL talent and to keep developing.
The Bears' final draft pick was Travis Bell from Kennesaw State in Georgia. Bell is very raw but has excellent natural traits with his speed, strength and explosiveness. Since he came from a low level of college competition, he may need a year on the practice squad before he is ready for NFL action.
It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff uses the tackles in the rotation. It might be best to pair each rookie with a vet, meaning Dexter would play with Jones and Billings playing with Pickens. That way there is always an experienced player on the field all the times with the interior linemen.
The young guys will go through the natural growing pains, but the talent is there for this group to be very good and a huge upgrade over a year ago.
At defensive end, the story is different. The group has some very good run defenders but lacks a dominant edge pass rusher as of today. Both Flus and Pace have stated that the Bears are still looking for a pass rusher, but with camp opening in just over two weeks, will it happen by then?
During free agency, the Bears signed DeMarcus Walker to play the left end position. Walker is a little bigger than most DEs in this type of scheme, but he can play the run very well, which is something the outside players didn't do last year. Last season was Walker's best as a pass rusher with 7.5 sacks, but most were generated with him playing either as a 5-tech or inside. While we know he is an upgrade as a run defender, it remains to be seen how efficient he can be as a pass rusher. With his experience rushing from the inside, the staff has said they may sometimes use him in that manner.
The other free agent signee is Rasheem Green, who is very similar to Walker in style of play. He is good at defending the run but average as an edge pass rusher. In his career, he only once had more than 5.0 sacks in a season, which was in 2021 when he was with Seattle.
Two defensive ends from last year were brought back, Trevis Gipson and Dominique Robinson.
After the 2021 season, it looked like Gipson had a bright future. In his first season of extended playtime, he totaled 7.5 sacks. It was hoped that he would get closer to 10 last year. That didn't happen, as he disappointed with only 3.0 sacks for the year. He has to have a strong camp, or he may not make the 53-man roster. He has the natural skills to be good but needs to pay more attention to detail and technique. How he performs in camp and the preseason will be one of the more interesting stories.
Robinson is interesting because he has some rare athletic ability but is very raw. He entered college as a quarterback, then moved to wide receiver, and wasn't a defensive lineman until his final two years in college. So this season is only his fourth year playing as a lineman.
Few have the natural explosiveness that Robinson has. At 255 pounds at the Combine, he had a 41" vertical jump and a 10'1" standing long jump. That, along with his 4.70 speed, says he has unlimited upside. Last year was a learning year for him; this year he needs to put it all together and at least approach the 10-sack number.
If the Bears are to bring in another pass rusher, there isn't a lot to choose from. On the street, there are two players that are familiar with the scheme and have produced as pros.
Yannick Ngakoue is a speed rusher who consistently gets around 10 sacks per year. His run defense is average, but if the Bears signed him, he would be their best pass rusher. He played for the Bears' defensive line coach Travis Smith when both were with the Raiders and had a strong season under Smith.
Justin Houston is 34 years old, which usually would work against him, but he has been very productive recently and played for Flus for two seasons in Indianapolis. Last year in Baltimore, he had 9.5 sacks while playing only 44% of the defensive snaps.
Houston is the better all-around player, but Ngakoue is the better pure pass rusher, so it will be interesting to see if the Bears try to sign either.
There have been rumors that two defensive ends may be available via trade. The first is Chase Young with Washington. Young is going into his fourth year but has had no production since his rookie year in 2020. He suffered a very severe knee injury in 2021, missed the rest of that season, and only played a few games last year. In the three games he played last year, he didn't look close to the player who was once the second overall pick in the 2020 Draft. If the Bears were to attempt to trade for him, it would be a very risky move, as who knows if he will ever recover fully from the injury.
The other rumored player to be available is the Vikings' Danielle Hunter. Hunter is the best player of the four by a long shot. He has 79 career sacks, and he's only 28 years old. Last year he had 10.5 sacks. The problem with this is why would the Vikings trade Hunter to a division rival? That would be an absurd idea on their part, but stranger things have happened in the NFL. Regardless, I think it's a long shot at best that Hunter becomes a Bear.
No matter who the Bears sign or trade for, he will likely be here for a short period, especially if it's Houston. Next spring, the Draft is loaded with pass rushers, and I believe the Bears will use two of their top three picks on pass rushers. If you watched how Ryan Poles has drafted, this is very conceivable.
Chicago's D-line should be much improved over last season, but it's still not where the decision-makers want it to be. For the Bears to have a winning season, it's imperative that the group plays well!