Considering how good the defense was in 2018, believing the 2020 vintage will be better might seem like crazy talk. But the Bears have more talent (and more depth) on the unit than they did two seasons ago.
The biggest difference comes at edge where Robert Quinn has made a career out of sacking quarterbacks. Leonard Floyd made a career out of everyone wondering when he was going to start sacking quarterbacks. Floyd has his strengths and there’s a reason he ended up signing a decent contract elsewhere, but too often teams were able to get away with leaving subpar tackles on an island with a top-ten pick. The addition of Quinn makes the Bears starting third down defense basically unblockable, and he also should make it easier for Akiem Hicks to take snaps off because they’ll still be able to generate pass rush without him.
While seen as a letdown nationally, what the 2019 Bears team accomplished defensively was actually impressive, considering Hicks missed most of the season. They still finished in the top 10 in DVOA and yards allowed and top five in points allowed — just about one point per game more than they allowed in 2018. When you add in the complete failure of the offense to give them any help, the drop was not that far.
May signings are hardly ever big splashes, but the Bears ability to add Tashaun Gipson to the secondary could go down as one of the most important moves of the offseason. The Bears viewed Deon Bush and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as similar players last year, to the point where Bush was stealing snaps from Clinton-Dix. But Gipson is a step up and a pretty sizable one at that.
While there are some injury concerns with Gipson, there’s no doubting his ability in coverage. The eight-year pro has 23 interceptions and 47 passes breakups. In Houston last year, he allowed an opponent passer rating of 55. That isn’t just better than what Bush and Clinton-Dix allowed in 2019, it’s significantly better than the 73 Adrian Amos allowed in 2018. Gipson was able to do this despite not having anywhere near the kind of supporting cast he’ll have in 2020.
The one spot where the Bears might be slightly weaker in 2020 than they were in 2018 is cornerback, where Prince Amukamara and Bryce Callahan had career years in 2018.
Rookie corners are a bit of a crap shoot, but Jaylon Johnson is thought of highly by pretty much every draft analyst. It seems likely that he would’ve gone in the first round — perhaps even high in the first — if not for shoulder injuries that hampered him in 2019.
Johnson is bigger than Amukamara and very likely runs better than the 31-year-old at this point of his career. Amukamara has had a tendency to get lost on deep passes, which helped result in six defensive pass interference penalties in 2018. It’s conceivable that with better pass rush and safety play that Johnson has a better year than Amukamara did in 2018.
Buster Skrine was a weak spot at times for the Bears secondary last year, allowing a passer rating of 91.8 and missing 13 tackles — 21.3 percent of his attempts. Skrine will likely face a battle for his job in camp as most reports had 2019 sixth-rounder Duke Shelley as a comparable player last year. The Bears also added Kindle Vildor in the 2020 draft and he could also fill in at slot corner.
Depth at cornerback is something the Bears had almost none of in 2018, but should be set at in 2020. The Bears top backup in 2018 — Kevin Tolliver — might even be a long shot to make the squad in 2020.
The rest of the Bears defense remains largely unchanged, with players who should be in their primes. The one exception might be Hicks at 31 years old, but missing most of the 2019 season with an elbow injury could benefit the big man in 2020.
Roquan Smith should be better than he was two years ago, Danny Trevathan has shown no signs of slowing down, Eddie Goldman is still immovable and Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson continue to play like elite players at their positions.
Then there is Mack.
It’s easy to forget now, but Mack suffered an ankle injury in 2018 and was never really the same that season. In 2019, he was the sole focus of opposing offenses without Hicks. Now, with the addition of Quinn and return of Hicks, teams just aren’t going to be able to avoid Mack the same way. He’s coming. And he’ll be angry.
The fatal flaw of the 2020 version of the team just might be the same as it was in 2018 as they don’t have strong tacklers in the secondary. But with an improved pass rush and better ball skills, that flaw shouldn’t be a killer — as long as they don’t have to play Brock Osweiler in the weird Miami humidity.
The Bears won’t be able to make noise in the playoffs without a significant contribution from their offense, but their defense should be good enough to help them get there and, unlike in 2018, it might now be good enough to hold a lead late in a playoff game.