Zooming in on the Chicago Edge Rushers: What They Have and What They Need

| February 21st, 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. Since their pass rush after the trade was so bad, it stands to reason that they need a whole host of new pass rushers. To figure that out a little more clearly, let’s start by looking at who they have returning from last year.

Individual pass rush data is going to come from Pro Football Focus (PFF). They track pressures quite differently than Pro Football Reference, but I think the data is of better quality, so I’m going to use it. PFF doesn’t provide team-wide data, so that is why I used Pro Football Reference data in part one.

What They Have

The Bears had three defensive ends who played meaningful snaps in 2022, and all but the recently cut Al-Quadin Muhammad are under contract for 2023. The table below shows how they performed in a variety of per-snap metrics, including how they ranked compared to the 117 edge rushers league-wide who had at least 150 pass rush snaps. (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’s disheartening. Trevis Gipson was the best of the bunch as merely a bad pass rusher, while both Al-Quadin Muhammad and Dominique Robinson were among the worst in the NFL.

Of course, we saw in the team-wide data that trading Robert Quinn significantly changed Chicago’s pass rush, so it stands to reason the individual players could have seen a shift in their performance before and after the trade. The table below shows how the rush/pressure and pass rush productivity changed for each edge rusher due to trading Quinn (sacks are not shown because the samples are so small).

A few thoughts:

  • All three edge rushers see their productivity significantly decrease after the Bears traded Quinn away. This shows the value that having a respected threat like Quinn has to a defense overall. Even though Quinn wasn’t doing much to bother the quarterback himself last year, the attention he drew from opposing offenses freed up others to get after the quarterback more effectively.
    • This also shows a pretty clear limitation on just looking at production stats, since they say nothing about the difficulty of the assignment a player faced. A pressure counts as a pressure regardless of whether you are single teamed against a TE, facing the opponent’s best blocker, or drawing a double team. It’s a good reminder that data alone should never be the sole method of evaluation, and why it is always good to try and look at as much data around a topic as you can to paint as complete a picture as possible.
  • Trevis Gipson saw the most significant drop-off in production. When Quinn was around, Gipson was a significantly above-average pass rusher, but he fell off a cliff after the trade. I don’t have access to data on double team rates, but my friends who watch film say that they noticed he was double teamed significantly more often after Quinn was traded away, since he was now the pass rusher opposing offenses worried about the most.
  • Al-Quadin Muhammad also saw the post-Quinn drop-off, but his pre-Quinn production was already well below average, which matches every other season of his career. He’s not a good defensive end, which is why the Bears cut him to save $4M last weekend.
  • Bears fans (me included) were all thrilled when Dominique Robinson had a hand in two sacks in his NFL debut last fall, but he was legitimately one of the worst defensive ends in the NFL both before and after the Quinn trade. In his defense, he was a rookie, and he was always viewed as a project due to his position switch in college. Perhaps he can develop into something, but for now the Bears can’t count on him to be anything more than a fourth defensive end who plays limited snaps.

What They Need

Teams running a 4-3 defense need three defensive ends who will play heavy snaps, with a fourth who can fill in for a few snaps a game. In order to have a good group, you ideally feature one premium player and two solid rotational ones.

  • Trevis Gipson is Chicago’s best returning DE, but his production after trading Quinn shows quite clearly that he’s not a premium player. That means the Bears need to add a premium edge rusher this offseason. They will have options to do so in both free agency (Yannick Ngakoue makes the most sense there, though an older player like Brandon Graham or Justin Houston could be a short-term option) or the first round of the draft (Will Anderson is the obvious name here, but somebody like Tyree Wilson could be an option too after a trade down).
  • Gipson’s production opposite Quinn in both 2021 and 2022 proves that he is a quality rotational DE. That leaves the Bears needing one more similar player to compete with Gipson to be the second starter or top backup. That could come in the form of a mid-level free agent or perhaps a day 2 draft pick.

Cutting Al-Quadin Muhammad makes it clear that the Bears are prioritizing their defensive line this offseason. They’re not content to keep him as their 3rd defensive end just because he’s already on the roster and knows the defense well, but admitted that he is not good enough for that role. They now need to bring in two new starting-level players at defensive end, which will require two meaningful investments. Looking at Chicago’s average pass rush production prior to trading Quinn last year, you can reasonably claim that replacing Quinn with a comparable (or better) player leaves them with a competent pass rush, and then upgrading Muhammad should actually leave them in a pretty good spot, even before factoring in any possible improvement from Dominique Robinson.

Stay tuned for part three (tomorrow), when we’ll do a similar examination of the defensive tackles to figure out what Chicago’s approach should be there.

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