Grading the Roster: Defense and Special Teams

| July 20th, 2023

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 Ends: 1

Key Players: DeMarcus Walker, Trevis Gipson, Rasheem Green, Dominique Robinson

Others: Terrell Lewis, Jalen Harris, Jalyn Holmes, D’Anthony Jones

This group is bad. Like, really bad. The saddest part is that this is still a significant improvement to what they had after trading Robert Quinn away last year, as Walker is clearly better than the departed Al-Quadin Muhammad, and Green improves the depth. Trevis Gipson is a capable rotational pass rusher when he’s not the guy opposing offenses are worried about, so I’m hopeful he can have something of a bounceback 2023.

This position group is the perfect storm of bad veterans and also no rookies to even consider getting excited about. Unless Dominique Robinson takes a massive step up from a disappointing rookie season, this should easily be the worst position group on the roster (and one of the worst overall in the NFL). It’s still possible Ryan Poles finally makes the defensive end signing he’s been teasing at for a few months, but even then the available options will likely take them from awful to bad.

Defensive Tackles: 2

Key Players: Justin Jones, Andrew Billings, Gervon Dexter Sr., Zacch Pickens

Others: Travis Bell, Andrew Brown, Donovan Jeter

The veteran defensive tackles are about as inspiring as the defensive ends. Justin Jones is an adequate rotational player, and Andrew Billings can stuff the run but not do much else. The grade gets a slight bump here simply because the Bears invested two Day 2 picks into Dexter and Pickens, plus a 7th rounder in Bell. I try to grade mostly on proven production, so it’s a minimal bump, but at least there’s some sort of upside present here that the defensive ends simply don’t have.

Linebackers: 8

Key Players: Tremaine Edmunds, TJ Edwards, Jack Sanborn, Noah Sewell

Others: Sterling Weatherford, Dylan Cole, Kuony Deng, DeMarquis Gates, Micah Baskerville

Now we get to the best position group on Chicago’s roster, which not coincidentally is the only position they invested in twice in free agency this offseason. Tremaine Edmunds is now the leader of the defense, looking to build on a breakthrough 2022 season that saw him emerge as one of the NFL’s best linebackers. TJ Edwards is a quality running mate for Edmunds, giving Chicago a really nice pair of LB who can hold up in coverage. Jack Sanborn had an impressive rookie season last year, and now he finds himself fighting with 5th round pick Noah Sewell to be the SAM LB and top backup to the main two veterans. That gives the Bears a great combination of top-end talent and depth at linebacker, with Sterling Weatherford and Dylan Cole both bringing special teams value as well.

Cornerbacks: 3

Key Players: Jaylon Johnson, Tyrique Stevenson, Kyler Gordon, Kindle Vildor

Others: Terrell Smith, Jaylon Jones, Josh Blackwell, Michael Ojemudia, Greg Stroman Jr.

Jaylon Johnson is a good but not great starting CB, but he’s the only proven performer on the roster. Rookie Tyrique Stevenson is expected to be the 2nd starter on the outside, but it’s hard to expect a rookie defender to play well immediately. Starting nickelback Kyler Gordon, Chicago’s highest draft pick in 2022, had a rough rookie season, though there were a few glimmers of hope if you dig deeper. There’s a lot of potential here, but a lot of question marks too. The depth at least looks pretty solid, as Kindle Vildor has plenty of starting experience and wasn’t completely terrible in 2022, Jaylon Jones got some run late last year and mostly held up, and 5th round pick Terrell Smith has the size, speed, and experience to eventually push for playing time.

Safeties: 6

Key Players: Eddie Jackson, Jaquan Brisker, Elijah Hicks

Others: Kendall Williamson, Adrian Colbert, Macon Clark, AJ Thomas, Bralen Trahan

Eddie Jackson had a major bounceback year in 2022 and should be good again. Jaquan Brisker put up big stats as a rookie in 2022, but struggled when you look more closely at his performance. If he takes a big step up in year 2 – which is certainly possible – this could be one of the better safety duos in the NFL, but for now I’m in wait and see mode. There’s also real concern about the depth behind them, as Hicks and Williamson, the presumed 2nd string, are recent 7th round picks who have yet to do anything in the NFL.

Defense: 4

This averages out to a slightly below-average unit on the defense, which I think feels about right. The defensive line is bad, the linebackers are really good, and the secondary is talented but inexperienced. It feels like this group could be really good a year from now with some additional seasoning for the secondary and some big investments in the DL, but for now the Bears will be hoping the line can at least stop the run well enough to keep opposing offenses behind the chains. The Bears clearly prioritized fully fixing the offense this offseason – which was 100% the right call – and will surely count on coaching to cover up DL issues and make the defense adequate overall.

Special Teams: 6

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

Others: K Andre Szmyt

Santos is a quality kicker; he made 91% of his field goals in 2022, good for 7th in the NFL, and is 5th in NFL in field goal % (minimum 50 attempts) since joining the Bears in 2020. However, he oddly struggles with extra points, finishing last in the NFL at 84% last year and 25th of 33 kickers in extra point % (minimum 50 attempts) since 2020. Still, he’s a solid 7 on his own, and Patrick Scales is a perfectly fine long snapper, but punter Trenton Gill brings the grade down a bit.

Gill struggled as a rookie, finishing 23rd in yards per punt, 29th in net yards per punt, and 27th in the rate of kicks downed inside the 20. I’m honestly surprised the Bears didn’t bring any competition for him to camp, and he needs to show significant improvement in 2023 to justify their faith in him.

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