Grading the Roster: Defense & Specials

| July 20th, 2021

Today, we look at defense and special teams.

Defensive Line: 8

Key Players: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Mario Edwards

Roster Depth: Angelo Blackson, Khyiris Tonga, Mike Pennel, LaCale London, Daniel Archibong

Akiem Hicks is still a stud, Eddie Goldman is back after opting out in 2020, and Bilal Nichols can now man the defensive end spot where he is best. That gives the Bears an excellent starting trio. They’ve also improved their depth, re-signing Edwards and bringing in Blackson at defensive end while adding two competent nose tackles in Tonga and Pennel in case Goldman goes down with injury. This group should be a clear strength for the Bears in 2021.

Edge Rushers: 7

Key Players: Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Jeremiah Attaochu

Roster Depth: Trevis Gipson, Charles Snowden, James Vaughters, Ledarius Mack, Austin Calitro

Khalil Mack remains one of the best all-around edge rushers in the NFL, but his pass rushing productivity took a dip from great to good last year. Robert Quinn had a horrible 2020 as he battled through injury. Both players are now over 30; can they rebound? Chicago’s defense is built with the idea that this will be a dominant duo, but the pass rush was surprisingly mediocre in 2020, and they will need to be markedly better in 2021 to mask holes on the back end.

The addition of Jeremiah Attaochu as a 3rd rusher is a real upgrade and provides depth and insurance in case Quinn continues to struggle. The Bears have also spoken highly of toolsy sophomore Trevis Gipson this offseason, but it’s hard to put too much stock into offseason praise until we see it on the field.

One area that is overlooked here comes in pass coverage. Neither Quinn nor Mack (nor Attaochu) can do much there, but the Bears have typically had a versatile OLB who gets a decent number of snaps (Leonard Floyd through 2019, Barkevious Mingo in 2020). Undrafted rookie Charles Snowden fits that mold of player, and I won’t be surprised if he earns a roster spot and potentially a role on defense.

Inside Linebackers: 6

Key Players: Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, Christian Jones

Roster Depth: Josh Woods, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Caleb Johnson

Roquan Smith was the breakout Bear of 2020, emerging as a legitimate All Pro at the heart of Chicago’s defense. Unfortunately, Danny Trevathan continued his decline and can no longer be counted upon as a reliable player, especially in pass coverage. The Bears will need to continue to pull him off the field on passing downs to keep him from getting exposed.

Lack of depth was a major issue last year, as Iyiegbuniwe and Woods are mostly special teamers, but the Bears added experienced veteran Christian Jones this offseason to address that. The improved depth is a plus, but the presence of Trevathan as a liability in the starting lineup makes it difficult to grade this unit any higher, no matter how good Roquan Smith is.

Cornerbacks: 1

Key Players: Jaylon Johnson, Desmond Trufant, Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, Thomas Graham

Roster Depth: Artie Burns, Tre Roberson, Teez Tabor, Dionte Ruffin, Michael Joseph, Xavier Crawford, Rojesterman Farris

Jaylon Johnson was amazing in the first month of his rookie season and awful after that. Desmond Trufant hasn’t been good since 2018. Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley showed flashes in 2020, but are undersized late round draft picks who have very limited sample sizes. Thomas Graham is a 6th round rookie who didn’t play football in 2020.

There’s potential in this group, but not a single sure thing. That’s why I had to list so many key players – we legitimately don’t know who will end up getting playing time. Until young players emerge and prove they can be reliable starters, there’s an argument to be made that this is the worst CB group in the NFL.

Safeties: 7

Key Players: Eddie Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Deon Bush, Jordan Lucas

Roster Depth: DeAndre Houston-Carson, Marqui Christian

Tashaun Gipson is what he is: a capable safety who’s nothing special. This unit is really all about Eddie Jackson, who had a down year in 2020 following an outstanding start to his career from 2017-19. If he bounces back to form as one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL, this is a strong position group deserving of a 7 or 8. If he repeats 2020, his missed tackles start to be a bigger issue, and it’s a below average unit that probably gets a 4.

I tend to think Jackson will bounce back, much like Kyle Fuller did in 2020, and the grade is further bolstered by excellent depth from Deon Bush and Jordan Lucas. Both have proven to be capable spot starters in the past, giving Chicago’s safeties a solid floor.

Defense Total: 6

These groups average out to a 5.8, which rounds to a 6. There’s real star power here with Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, and Eddie Jackson (should he bounce back), but the entire CB unit is a giant question mark, and Danny Trevathan is a coverage liability that opposing offenses can exploit. There are also concerns about age, as a number of key players are over 30, when play starts to decline and injuries become more common.

I think it’s fair to think of the defense as a slightly above average group overall, with the potential to be appreciably better if the young CBs can exceed expectations and play well. If they can’t do that and age starts to catch up to some of the big names in the front 7, however, things could get ugly in a hurry.

There’s also the added unknown of coaching changes on defense. Stud defensive line coach Jay Rodgers left for San Diego, which was a significant loss. Rodgers had been in Chicago since 2015 and churned out a steady stream of quality production from players up and down his roster. In my estimation, the defensive line is the best position group on the roster, but will the returning players be able to continue that same production under a new position coach?

Then there is the matter of new defensive coordinator Sean Desai, who replaces the retiring Chuck Pagano. Desai has been with the Bears as a safeties coach for a while, but has never coordinated before, so he’s a pretty big unknown. It’s highly possible he proves to be an upgrade over Pagano, who wasn’t exactly inspiring in his 2 seasons in Chicago, but it’s also possible he ends up being a dud.

Specialists: 5

Key Players: K Cairo Santos, P Pat O’Donnell, LS Patrick Scales

Roster Depth: K Brian Johnson

This entire group returns intact from 2020, which is a good thing for the Bears. Pat O’Donnell remains an average punter – he was in average punt distance, but 3rd in punts downed inside the 20. Patrick Scales is a perfectly fine long snapper. Cairo Santos had a great year in 2020, but was awful for years before that, so he needs to prove 2020 was not an aberration. If he does, this group takes a significant step forward, but until then I can’t consider them any better than average.

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