By Bryan Dietzler
The Bears made an interesting move on defense once John Fox was hired. They switched from their traditional 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense and brought in former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The Bears, because they had played the 4-3 defense for so long, didn’t have the ideal personnel to make the scheme work well in its first year. The Bears drafted for the 3-4 defense and brought in some free agents to help make it work and while they weren’t one of the top defensive units in the league this year they were much more improved over what they had been the last two years.
The following is a list of grades for each position on the Bears defense. There is some insight into how some of the individual players did this year as well as a look at the specific unit as a whole. There is a very basic run down of how things might look for the 2016 season as well and what might need to happen in each area.
Defensive Line-C –The defensive line had some issues during the season but when players were healthy and in place they didn’t do too badly of a job. Rookie Eddie Goldman was a force in the middle of line for the Bears this past season and was playing very well up until he was hurt in the second to the last game. The rest of the line played marginal and injuries (Ego Ferguson) and a surprise release (Jeremiah Ratliff) left this unit hobbled. Jarvis Jenkins played well and some backups stepped in and provided good play at times.
The Bears may be in search of some additional talent along the defensive line this offseason and may try to bolster the line with that depth. There is also a question about Jenkins. He is on a one-year deal, which expires this offseason so it is not yet known if the Bears will bring him back. He is definitely worth another shot if the Bears decide do decide to bring him back. Most of their depth players are on one-year deals as well and it will be interesting to see how the Bears deal with that depth this offseason.
Look for the Bears to add some additional depth and possible starting power to their defensive line this offseason. They need to get much more solid on the defensive line so that they can be productive next season. Look for the Bears to do that this offseason.
Outside Linebackers-B – -The outside linebacker position was a little bit of a confusing one for the Bears this past season. While they got good play out of a couple of former defensive ends that were now standing up there was one outside linebacker in Willie Young, that wanted to be known as a defensive end. He got several sacks on the season and played reasonably well at his new position. Lamarr Houston played well collecting several sacks at critical points in games and had adapted to his new role. Sam Acho, who is in on a one-year contract, played very well for the Bears when he was in the lineup.
The Bears are going to have an interesting offseason at this position. Young, who as mentioned has made his case that he is a defensive end and not an outside linebacker, may not be back with the Bears if they appease his wishes to be a 4-3 defensive end. That would be a big loss for Chicago. Houston appears to be entrenched at one of the outside linebacker spots and remains under contract for next season. Acho, as mentioned, was on a one-year contract this season so the Bears may choose to either bring him back or let him walk.
The need is greater at the inside linebacker positon than it is at the outside positon but the Bears may choose to do some work here during the offseason to improve the position and make it stronger. Some of what they do have already is good but they will need to enhance what they already have and build upon that. There is a decision to make about Young and Acho so that will play into how things work out this season. If they can keep some of the talent that they have from this year and carry it over into next year then they should be farther ahead at the position.
Inside Linebacker-D-The Bears had their struggles at the inside linebacker position as injury and ineffective play brought the position down this year. Shea McClellin, who had been moved around a lot during his time with the Bears, finally landed at one of the inside linebacker positions and even called the signals for the team on defense this year. His play was somewhat solid but not spectacular. Christian Jones played well at times but fell off in his play towards the end of the year and was replaced by John Timu. Timu had a nice run of it during the last few games but isn’t a long term answer at the inside linebacker position.
McClellin’s contract is up this offseason and it’s a little bit up in the air as far as what the Bears are going to do with him. It’s most likely that the Bears aren’t going to bring him back and they will try to get some additional talent in there using the draft or free agency. Jones may not be the answer inside and Timu provides good depth but probably doesn’t have starting potential. The Bears are going to have to do something at this position in the offseason.
The draft may provide them with some starting power and depth at the inside linebacker position but the Bears may also reach out in free agency and try to fill the position that way. Expect some big changes here during the offseason.
Safety-C +-The safety position was solid in one spot as rookie Adrian Amos took over at the start of the season and played pretty well except for a few miscues at certain points in the season. He was named to a few All-rookie teams for his efforts and looks to be a long-term starter at the safety position. The Bears did struggle at the other safety position as injury and ineffective play really hurt them there. The planned starter for the season, Antrel Rolle, missed several games with injuries and was eventually placed on injured reserve. Chris Prosinski and Harold Jones-Quartey took over in his place. Prosinski had his problems but so did Quartey. Prosinski ended up taking over for Quartey and then Quartey ended up taking over for Prosinski as the season ended and Quartey had a big game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While Quartey may add good depth to the position, he isn’t someone who is consistent enough to be a full-time starter.
The Bears have some decisions to make at the safety position. Amos pretty much has a lock on one spot but will they bring back the often-injured and aging Rolle to try to take over the other spot? The Bears may be done with Rolle after this season. Quartey and Prosinski are good depth players that are fine on special teams but may not be able to start long term for the Bears. Chicago may need to look at adding some depth and starting potential to this position in the offseason to enhance it and make it better than it has been. This continues to be a problem area for the Bears and has been over the last few seasons.
Chicago may want to look to free agency, once again, to fill this position. They could look at the draft but then they might not find too many good safeties in the draft this year as there isn’t a lot of talent at that position. Either sticking with what they have or finding someone in free agency may be the way that they go.
Cornerbacks-B-The season started rough for the guys at the cornerback position as ineffective play and penalties came but they soon subsided and this unit played better. The combination of Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter seemed to work well for the Bears as they helped the group to become one of the better units on the team. Fuller had a solid season and Porter played very well on most occasions batting down passes and covering the opponent’s best wide receiver. Their depth was a little shaky as Alan Ball, who was penned in to be the starter, didn’t work out and their nickel situation was hampered by health issues as the person that stepped up to be the better nickel back, Bryce Callahan, was injured towards the end of the season.
For next season, the Bears may see a similar look to what they saw this year. One of the problems they will have is that Porter is going to be a free agent this offseason and with his advanced age and some concerns about his health it might be likely that they don’t bring him back for another season. Porter proved he could stay healthy and be a force so they may choose to bring him back in 2016. Fuller should only get better and be solid next season. Depth is the issue. The Bears need to work on their depth at this position and get stronger.
Free agency or the draft may be the places the Bears turn to shore up this position. Ball may not be around next year and some of their depth may be gone. Hopefully the Bears feel that Porter is well worth re-signing and bring him back. If they don’t they will be looking for another cornerback to play opposite Fuller and may not have as solid of a player at that position to at least start the season.
Kicker-C-Robbie Gould had his struggles this season especially towards the end of it where his mistakes cost the Bears at least two games. Gould got back on track as the season ended and kicked pretty well. The Bears won’t be looking to replace Gould this offseason unless something drastic happens so look for him to be around in 2016 and hopefully kicking better than he did this season.
Punter-A-The punting game, not including the coverage units, was decent this season as punter Pat O’Donnell had a nice year. He got good distance on his punts and his hang time was decent. If the coverage units would have done better he might have had better averages. Look for O’Donnell to be the Bear’s punter in 2016.
Kick Return Unit-C-The Bears used Marc Mariani on kickoff returns to start the season and he wasn’t as effective as the Bears might have hoped. A little later on they put Deonte Thompson back to return kicks and he did a very good job for them as he had some long returns that helped the Bears gain good field position. Chicago needs to work on the kick return unit for next season. If Thompson sticks around, the Bears may choose to put him back there to return kicks in 2016. If not they will be looking for another return specialist unless they go back to Mariani (if he sticks with the team).
Kick Coverage Unit-C-The season started a little rough for the Bear’s kick coverage units but they solidified things and did better as the season went on. Special teams coach Jeff Rodgers helped to get this unit back in shape and he will have his work cut out for him again next year as the Bears will have some turn over at the bottom of their roster as this is where the special teams players come from. Look for some new faces on this squad heading into next season with hopes that this unit will be better in 2016.
Punt Return Unit-C-The punt return unit was manned by Mariani for the better part of the season and he had his moments. He had some fumbling problems that almost cost the Bears and he’s not too solid of a return specialist. The Bears may be looking to replace him in 2016 but there is no one on the roster as of yet that could probably do be a good fill in for Mariani. Could the Bears bring in someone during the offseason to add a spark to their punt return teams? It will be interesting to see what the Bears decide to do here during the offseason.
Punt Coverage Unit-C-The punt coverage units, like the kick coverage unit, had a rocky start to the year but things did end up getting better, for the most part. Like the kick coverage units, there is going to be some turnover at the bottom of the roster that is going to affect the way these units perform next season. Rodgers should be able to put something together that is effective and hopes are high that it will be a better season for this unit than it was in 2015.
The overall grade for the defense is a C +. They are on the verge of a B – because of the improvement they showed this year when compared to the past few seasons but this unit still left some plays on the field and could have performed better. With a few additional pieces and another year in the defense, this group should perform much better than they did in 2015. Health and the makeup of the personnel on defense will go a long way in determining what happens here next season.
The overall grade for the special teams is a C. They had their problems at the beginning of the season but got better as the year went on. Due to the turnover expected in the bottom half of the roster the units on special teams will look different than they did in 2015 but hopefully they will be able to put together some solid sub-units and have a good season in 2016. Let’s see what the Bears decide to do this offseason and see how it shapes special teams.