Zooming in on the Chicago Defensive Tackles: A Cupboard Decidedly Bare

| February 22nd, 2023

In part one, we found that the Bears actually had a respectable pass rush for the first part of the year, but trading Robert Quinn had a profound impact, leaving them with the worst pass rush of any NFL team in the last five years post-trade.

In part two, we found that Trevis Gipson is a quality second defensive end, but only if there is a quality starter opposite him, which the Bears will need to find this offseason.

The Inside Men

The Bears had four defensive tackles with at least 150 pass rush snaps in 2022, and three of them – Armon Watts, Angelo Blackson, and Mike Pennel Jr. – are free agents, so it will be very easy to remake this position substantially if they want to.

The table below shows how those four performed in a variety of per-snap metrics, including how they ranked compared to the 104 defensive tackles league-wide who had at least 150 pass rush snaps. All data comes from Pro Football Focus (PFF). (Side note: Pass Rush Productivity is a unique PFF stat that accounts for all sacks, QB hits, and pressures on a per-snap basis, with an added weight given to sacks; a higher value is better.) Values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

That looks ugly, with Justin Jones coming in around average and everybody else well below that label. Of course, we saw pretty substantial splits before and after trading Robert Quinn for the defensive ends, so we should look to see if that played a role here too.

A few thoughts:

  • Unlike with edge rusher, there’s not really a huge difference here. Justin Jones and Angelo Blackson were a little more productive after the trade, while Armon Watts and Mike Pennel Jr. were a little less productive, but overall, there’s no clear trend.
    • It’s worth wondering if adding a dominant defensive tackle might have a reverse effect of the Quinn trade on the defensive ends, drawing attention on the interior and freeing up the other defensive tackle to be more productive against easier assignments.
  • That leaves us with Justin Jones producing as an average pass rushing defensive tackle, while the rest of the group was terrible.
    • To be fair, Mike Pennel Jr. is viewed solely as a run stuffer, so it’s not really reasonable to expect him to provide much pass rush. Pennel is currently a free agent and should fight for a roster spot in camp if the Bears decide to re-sign him.
    • The most disappointing among this group was Angelo Blackson, who was an average pass rusher in both 2020 and 2021. It seems pretty clear he’s a better fit in a 3-4 defense, which is where he played in both of those seasons, than the 4-3 Chicago switched to in 2022. That’s the opposite of Justin Jones, who saw his production jump when he switched from a 3-4 in 2021 and earlier to a 4-3 in 2022. Blackson is currently a free agent, and I would assume he will not be back.
    • Armon Watts was also something of a disappointment coming off a fairly solid season in Minnesota in 2021, but there’s a reason the Vikings cut him prior to the start of the season. He’s currently a free agent and should be viewed as a fourth defensive tackle if re-signed.

What They Need

Like with defensive ends, teams running a 4-3 defense need three defensive tackles capable of playing heavy snaps, with a fourth capable of filling in for a few snaps per game. In order to have a quality group, you ideally have one premium player and two solid rotational ones.

  • The Bears clearly don’t have a premium defensive tackle on the roster, so they need to add one this offseason. That could come in free agency (Da’Ron Payne and Dre’Mont Jones make the most sense, though an older player like Javon Hargrave or Fletcher Cox could provide a short-term solution) or the first round of the draft (Jalen Carter is the most obvious name here).
  • Justin Jones can be one solid rotational player, either as the second starter or top backup, but he’s the only notable defensive tackle currently under contract, so the Bears will need to add another.

In an ideal world, I’d like to see Chicago add one big ticket free agent or first round pick and a mid-level free agent or mid-round draft pick, but they might not have the resources for that given the sheer quantity of needs on the roster this offseason. It’s possible they could just do one big add, then re-sign Watts and/or Pennel for cheap to compete for backup spots with a late round draft pick and/or undrafted free agents.

Adding one big-time player at both defensive end and defensive tackle and then running it back with everybody else from the 2022 defensive line might not feel like enough, but that would still be an upgraded group over the one that gave Chicago an average pass rush at the start of last year before trading Robert Quinn away. Realistically, that might be the best Chicago can do this offseason while still leaving themselves enough resources to also upgrade the offensive line, wide receivers, running backs, linebackers, and cornerbacks.

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