Grading the Roster: Defense and Specials

| July 22nd, 2022

Camp approaches, which means it’s time for me to grade the roster. Like I’ve done the last few years, I’ll grade on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the worst in the NFL, 10 being the best, and 5 being an average NFL unit. Let’s get right down to it.

Defensive Tackles: 3

Key Players: Angelo Blackson, Justin Jones, Mario Edwards Jr.

Roster Depth: Khyiris Tonga, Mike Pennel Jr., LaCale London, Auzoyah Alufohai, Micah Dew-Treadway

Justin Jones is the highest paid defensive tackle on the roster, but his underlying statistics suggest he is a poor pass rusher and mediocre run defender. He was a panic signing after the Larry Ogunjobi deal fell through, and expectations for him should be low. Angelo Blackson is Chicago’s best defensive tackle, and he is pretty much the definition of average both from a rushing the passer and stopping the run standpoint. Mario Edwards Jr. can provide some pressure as a situational pass rusher, but struggles with stupid penalties. The fourth defensive tackle will likely come down to Khyiris Tonga, a 7th round pick in 2021, and veteran Mike Pennel Jr., both profiling more as traditional nose tackles that can stuff the run but don’t offer much rushing the passer. This group isn’t terrible, but they also don’t really have anybody who’s all that good, which is a problem in a league that more and more needs disruption from the interior of the defensive line.

Edge Rushers: 6

Key Players: Robert Quinn, Trevis Gipson, Al-Quadin Muhammad

Roster Depth: Dominique Robinson, Sam Kamara, Charles Snowden, Carson Taylor

Robert Quinn was a good (but not great) pass rusher last year, and he has a history of following strong seasons with poor ones. He’s also a bad run defender. Trevis Gipson showed real promise in a part-time role last year, and I am excited to see what he can do in an expanded role as he enters the third season of his career. New head coach Matt Eberflus brought Al-Quadin Muhammad over from Indianapolis with him, but he was bad against the run and pass there, so expectations should be low. Rookie 5th rounder Dominique Robinson is an intriguing player with all sorts of physical tools, but he is still incredibly raw after switching from WR to DE two years ago, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect much from him as a rookie.

Linebackers: 6

Key Players: Roquan Smith, Nicholas Morrow

Roster Depth: Matt Adams, Joe Thomas, Jack Sanborn, Caleb Johnson, Noah Dawkins, CJ Avery, Christian Albright

Roquan Smith is a beast in both pass coverage and against the run. Nicholas Morrow is great in coverage but struggles defending the run. Together, this is a starting duo that the Bears can feel good about, and probably the strongest part of the entire roster. Should either Smith or Morrow get hurt, however, things get dicey in a hurry. Adams, Thomas, and Dawkins are veteran special teamers who have never really played on defense, while everybody else is a recent undrafted rookie looking to earn a spot on the roster. Smith and Morrow would earn a 7 or 8 as starters, but the complete lack of depth bumps this down a bit.

Cornerbacks: 2

Key Players: Jaylon Johnson, Kyler Gordon, Thomas Graham, Tavon Young

Roster Depth: Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, Lamar Jackson, Allie Green IV, Michael Joseph, BoPete Keys, Greg Stroman Jr., Jaylon Jones, Lamar Jackson, Jayson Stanley

Jaylon Johnson has proven he is a capable starting CB, and the Bears are hoping he takes the next step to become a consistent quality player this year. Kyler Gordon, a highly-regarded 2nd round pick, is projected to be the other outside starter, but rookie cornerbacks typically have quite a learning curve, so some struggles should be expected. The starting nickel spot comes down to 2021 6th round pick Thomas Graham, who showed flashes in limited snaps last year, or veteran Tavon Young, who has struggled to stay healthy. Graham seems to be the frontrunner heading into training camp, and it’s hard to expect much out of a CB group starting two inexperienced players. Looking at the depth pieces, Kindle Vildor is ok in zone but atrocious in man, which I guess works for a backup in a zone-heavy scheme. Duke Shelley is just plain bad and probably shouldn’t make the roster; he’ll be fighting for his spot with a bunch of undrafted rookies mainly based on special teams.

Safeties: 4

Key Players: Eddie Jackson, Jaquan Brisker, Dane Cruikshank, DeAndre Houston-Carson

Roster Depth: Elijah Hicks, Jon Alexander, AJ Thomas

Eddie Jackson has struggled a bit the last two years after a strong start to his career. I think it’s fair to consider him an average starter, but the Bears are hoping he can rebound and be more than just that in 2022. Jaquan Brisker, a highly regarded 2nd round pick, is projected to be the other starter, but rookie safeties typically have quite a learning curve, so some struggles should be expected. The depth here is really solid with both Dane Cruikshank and DeAndre Houston-Carson providing solid experience, while rookie 7th round pick Elijah Hicks should fight for a special teams role.

Overall Defense: 4

The defensive line looks sub-par, the linebackers look good but have no depth, and the secondary has zero proven studs and three complete question marks. Add it all up, and this doesn’t seem to be a terribly strong group, though there’s always the potential for a pleasant surprise if things go Chicago’s way. If the Bears hang onto Quinn and he continues performing, Trevis Gipson backs up his breakout 2021, the linebackers stay healthy, and the young DBs step up, it could be a good defense. If some of those things start going wrong, it gets bad in a hurry. All in all, I think it’s fair to expect a below average defense this year, though good coaching could bump that up to average.

Specialists: 6

Key Players: K Cairo Santos, P Trenton Gill, LS Patrick Scales

Cairo Santos has had back-to-back strong seasons and solidified himself as a quality NFL kicker. By himself, he’s probably a 7 or 8. Patrick Scales is a perfectly adequate long snapper; I can’t remember noticing him in a game, which is exactly what you want. Trenton Gill is a rookie, making him a complete unknown as a punter. The Bears are very high on him, which is why they drafted him and didn’t bother bringing any competition to camp, but for the purposes of this exercise I can’t count on him as a quality player until I see him on the field. If he pans out, the Bears’ specialist group looks quite strong, but Santos’ presence alone is enough to say they should be solid.

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