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Grading the Roster: Defense

| July 25th, 2024

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: 3

Key players: Montez Sweat, DeMarcus Walker, Jake Martin, Austin Booker

Others: Dominique Robinson, Daniel Hardy, Khalid Kareem, Jamree Kromah

Montez Sweat is a good but not great pass rusher who’s clearly the best player on the defensive line. After him, this is a very weak group. DeMarcus Walker is the other starter, though he doesn’t offer a ton as a pass rusher and is probably best suited as a 3rd DE. Veteran Jake Martin was added in free agency and is the frontrunner to be the 3rd DE, but he’s mainly been a DE4 in his career and offers more as a run stuffer than pass rusher. 5th round pick Austin Booker is probably the Bears’ best chance at boosting the pass rush, but history says expectations for him should be quite low. Nobody else on this list even remotely moves the needle, and the Bears need to add a veteran defensive end pretty badly to make this group any sort of respectable.

Defensive Tackles: 2

Key players: Andrew Billings, Gervon Dexter Sr., Zacch Pickens

Others: Byron Cowart, Keith Randolph Jr., Michael Dwumfour, DeShaun Mallory

Andrew Billings is a nice run stuffer who doesn’t offer much as a pass-rusher, which is fine for a nose tackle. This group hinges on the development of 2nd year players Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens, who were 2nd and 3rd round picks, respectively, in 2023. Dexter showed great promise as a pass rusher last year, but really struggled against the run, and will have to improve significantly there to be worthy of an every-down role. Pickens didn’t play many snaps as a rookie, so it’s hard to say how he’ll perform in a presumably much expanded role. There’s not really any depth to note behind them either, as the most intriguing player to watch is undrafted rookie Keith Randolph Jr. The Bears could really use a veteran addition here too, as the defensive line is the clear weak link of the roster.

Linebackers: 7

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

Others: Amen Ogbongbemiga, Paul Moala, Micah Baskerville, Carl Jones Jr.

Tremaine Edmunds got paid big money last year coming off a career season, but struggled some in his 1st year in Chicago, as he gave up 8..7 yards/target, an awful mark for LBs (NFL average 7.5). TJ Edwards, on the other hand, vastly outperformed his free agent contract and was really good in 2023. The duo complement each other well and give Chicago a solid pair of starting LBs, and Jack Sanborn provides excellent depth as the top backup. Noah Sewell and Amen Ogbongbemiga provide quality special teams experience, and round out the 5 players likely to make the roster. If Edmunds bounces back, this could be one of the NFL’s best groups, but he needs to prove that 2023, not 2022, was the fluke season.

Cornerbacks: 8

Key players: Jaylon Johnson, Tyrique Stevenson, Kyler Gordon, Terell Smith

Others: Josh Blackwell, Jaylon Jones, Greg Stroman Jr., Leon Jones, Reddy Steward

Jaylon Jones broke out as one of the best CB in the NFL in 2023, as QBs throwing his way averaged less than 4 yards/target and threw 4 INT to only 1 TD. This earned him a hefty new contract as Chicago’s top CB, but the progress of young players Tyrique Stevenson and Kyler Gordon alongside him shouldn’t be overlooked. Stevenson struggled mightily in the 1st month of his rookie season, giving up 10.6 yards/target and 3 TD to 0 INT or pass breakups. He improved tremendously from week 5 on, however, giving up 7.0 yards/target, 6 TD, and 4 INT with 13 pass breakups. Performing at that level, much less seeing moderate 2nd year improvement, would make him an above-average NFL CB. Nickelback Kyler Gordon likewise improved after a rough first half of the season (7.9 yards/target) to give up only 6.2 yards/target in the back half of the frame, and he seems to already be an above-average nickelback. If Gordon and Stevenson can continue to improve, the Bears have one of the better starting groups in the NFL, and the depth is pretty solid as well with players like Terell Smith and Greg Stroman Jr. performing reasonably well when called on.

Safeties: 6

Key players: Kevin Byard III, Jaquan Brisker, Jonathan Owens

Others: Tarvarius Moore, Elijah Hicks, Adrian Colbert, Douglas Coleman III, Quindell Johnson

The Bears jettisoned longtime starter Eddie Jackson this offseason and replaced him with Kevin Byard III, a 2-time all pro who should be viewed as an upgrade. However, Byard will be 31 at the start of the season, and had something of a down season in 2023, so he may be a bit on the decline. Jaquan Brisker has been an elite run defender but coverage liability through 2 seasons, and will need to improve significantly against the pass to solidify himself as a quality starter. The depth, which was a massive issue in 2023, has significantly improved. Jonathan Owens has played starter-level snaps in Green Bay the last 2 years, while Tarvarius Moore logged over 1000 defensive snaps in his 4 years in San Francisco.

Defense: 5

Those grades average out to just above a 5, so we’ll say that a baseline expectation for the defense should be around average. This might feel low, considering Chicago got a lot of love for being a considerably better than average defense down the stretch last year, but defensive performance is not terribly stable year to year, especially for turnovers, and the Bears were largely driven by finishing 5th in the NFL in turnovers forced. Chicago’s defensive line was bad last year, and at least on paper, looks worse now than it was in 2023. Until that changes, it’s hard to expect a great defense. My hot take is that I think the Bears finish with a better offense than defense in 2024, though things could look better on the defensive side of the ball if a trio of 2nd year players (Gervon Dexter Sr., Zacch Pickens, Tyrique Stevenson) all make a significant leap and outperform expectations.

Specialists: 8

Key players: K Cairo Santos, P Tory Taylor, LS Patrick Scales

Others: P Corliss Waitman, LS Cameron Lyons

Cairo Santos has solidified himself as a quality NFL kicker. Of the 32 NFL kickers with 50+ field goal attempts since 2021, he ranks 7th in overall field goal %,  1st in FG% from 40-49 yards, and 14th in FG% from 50+ yards. Tory Taylor is a rookie, so he has yet to prove it in the NFL, but he was the highest drafted punter since 2019 and set a number of NCAA punting records, so expectations are high. Patrick Scales has been a solid long snapper for years now. Overall, this is a quality group.

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Grading the Roster: Offense

| July 24th, 2024

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.

Quarterback: 3

Key players: Caleb Williams, Tyson Bagent

Others: Austin Reed, Brett Rypien

Caleb Williams was the #1 pick in the draft and was widely viewed as one of the top QB prospects of the last 15 years, but rookie QBs usually struggle, so that should be the expectation until he proves otherwise. Tyson Bagent was a great story last year, earning the backup QB job as an undrafted rookie and going 2-2 in 4 starts, but he did not play well, averaging only 6.0 yards/attempt and throwing 6 INT to only 3 TD to post a 71.4 passer rating. He should be viewed as one of the worse backups in the NFL until proving otherwise. Rypien is a career practice squad guy, while Austin Reed was undrafted this year. They should compete for one practice squad spot as the emergency QB3. This grade has the potential to be much higher next year, as career projections for Williams should be quite optimistic, but there will likely be some bumps in the road in 2024.

Running Back: 6

Key players: D’Andre Swift, Khalil Herbert, Roschon Johnson

Others: Travis Homer, Ian Wheeler, Khari Blasingame (FB)

The Bears paid D’Andre Swift to be their clear-starter, and he has the ability to impact both the rush and pass game with 2700 rushing and 1400 receiving yards in his 4-year career. However, he is nothing special as a runner, as his best season last year still had quite unimpressive underlying metrics. Khalil Herbert is a really good runner who struggles mightily in the passing game, while Roschon Johnson was viewed as a quality all-around running back coming out of college before a mid-season concussion put a damper on his rookie season last year. Looking farther down the roster, Travis Homer and Ian Wheeler will compete for a roster spot based on special teams, and fullback Khari Blasingame will try to earn a roster spot even though new OC Shane Waldron never used a fullback in Seattle. Overall the group lacks a true superstar, but has good depth and should be fairly well-rounded overall.

Wide Receiver: 9

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Zooming in on the OL: Tackles

| July 23rd, 2024

The offseason is winding down as we are now firmly in training camp and shifting into preseason mode, but before the real games start I want to sneak one last series examining part of the roster to give us a better sense of what to expect in the 2024 season.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at the offense in the last few months, as we’ve learned together about new OC Shane Waldron, the WRs, the TEs, and expectations for rookies Caleb Williams and Rome Odunze. However, I’ve completely ignored the offensive line, and want to spend a little time this week focusing on the big boys up front who will be tasked with protecting the quarterback and opening lanes in the run game.

We already looked at the interior yesterday, and will shift gears to the tackles today.

Side note: If you read yesterday’s article, this one will follow the exact same format and have identical table setup, so hopefully the familiarity makes digesting all of the data a little easier. 

Pass Protection

Let’s start by examining pass protection, which is the most important part of an offensive lineman’s job. The Bears have two locked in starters in Darnell Wright, who are both back from 2023. The table below shows how they help up protecting the passer compared to 68 OTs (2.1/team, so roughly starters) around the NFL with 300+ pass blocking snaps. A few quick notes:

  • All data is from Pro Football Focus (PFF).
  • True pass sets are intended to remove plays designed to minimize the pass rush and make the OL’s job easier, such as screens, play action, and rollout.
  • Pass blocking efficiency measures overall pressure allowed, but weights sacks more heavily than other pressures. A higher number is better.
  • In a 68 player sample, 34th would be the middle rank, while cells highlighted in green indicate they ranked in the top 25% (top 17) and red indicates the bottom 25% (52nd or worse).
  • Two other players are also included, though they don’t have ranks indicated because they did not qualify with 300+ pass blocking snaps in 2023:
    • Larry Borom had 225 pass blocking snaps for the Bears last year, and will be competing to keep his role as the swing tackle in 2024.
    • Borom’s main competition is Matt Pryor, who didn’t play much in 2023 but had a combined 583 pass blocking snaps across 2021-22, which are included here.

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Zooming in on the OL: Interior

| July 22nd, 2024

The offseason is winding down as we are now firmly in training camp and shifting into preseason mode, but before the real games start I want to sneak one last series examining part of the roster to give us a better sense of what to expect in the 2024 season.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at the offense in the last few months, as we’ve learned together about new OC Shane Waldron, the WRs, the TEs, and expectations for rookies Caleb Williams and Rome Odunze. However, I’ve completely ignored the offensive line, and want to spend a little time this week focusing on the big boys up front who will be tasked with protecting the quarterback and opening lanes in the run game.

We’ll start today with the interior, and look at tackles tomorrow.

Guards

Pass Protection

Let’s start with guards, and then begin by examining pass protection, which is the most important part of an offensive lineman’s job. There were 62 guards (1.9/team) who had at least 300 pass blocking snaps in 2023, which is roughly starters. Chicago had three players in this sample: Teven Jenkins, Nate Davis, and Cody Whitehair. The table below shows how they help up protecting the passer compared their peers around the NFL. A few quick notes:

  • All data is from Pro Football Focus (PFF).
  • True pass sets are intended to remove plays designed to minimize the pass rush and make the OL’s job easier, such as screens, play action, and rollout.
  • Pass blocking efficiency measures overall pressure allowed, but weights sacks more heavily than other pressures. A higher number is better.
  • In a 62 player sample, 31st would be the middle rank, while cells highlighted in green indicate they ranked in the top 25% (top 16) and red indicates the bottom 25% (47th or worse).
  • Ryan Bates is also included, since he will be competing for a starting spot this year.
    • He didn’t play much in 2023, so his data is from 2022, and thus doesn’t have any ranks indicated.
    • The Bears plan to have him compete at center, but he’s only played 203 career snaps at C spread across 4 seasons, so that’s not much to go on. He played 821 snaps at guard in 2022, the only season where he’s had starting snaps, so that’s what we’ll evaluate.

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Establishing (Realistic) Expectations for Austin Booker

| July 10th, 2024

The Bears have three rookies with a chance to play meaningful roles on offense or defense this year, so I want to take some time this week to look at what history can tell us about what to expect for those players, both in their rookie seasons and in their careers. We started with QB Caleb Williams, looked yesterday at WR Rome Odunze, and today we’ll end the series with a look at DE Austin Booker.

The Setup

Booker was drafted in round 5 this year, so to look at historical comparisons I examined all 29 defensive ends selected in round 5 over the last 10 drafts. Full data set can be seen here.

Some might argue that Booker was projected as a 3rd round pick before the draft (he was 85th on the Consensus Big Board), so he should not be compared to typical 5th rounders, but Arif Hasan, who runs the Consensus Big Board, has found that “steals” – players who are drafted appreciably later than their pre-draft media projection – end up performing more in line with their draft slot than their media projected slot, so comparing him to other 5th round picks is still a valid approach.

Rookie Performance

With that in mind, let’s examine how these 29 defensive ends performed as rookies.

Overall, defensive ends drafted in the 5th round didn’t do much; their average stat line was 202 snaps, 12.5 tackles, and 1.5 sacks. Of course, there was a wide fluctuation of outcomes among 29 players, so the table below breaks them up into groups based on how many snaps they played.

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Establishing (Realistic) Expectations for Rome Odunze

| July 9th, 2024

The Bears have three rookies with a chance to play meaningful roles on offense or defense this year, so I want to take some time this week to look at what history can tell us about what to expect for those players, both in their rookie seasons and in their careers. We looked yesterday at QB Caleb Williams, and today will focus on WR Rome Odunze, before ending tomorrow with a look at DE Austin Booker.

The Setup

To get a baseline for Odunze, I looked at all WRs drafted near him in the last 10 years. Odunze was drafted 9th overall, so I went +/- 5 picks and looked at WRs drafted between 4th and 14th. This gave a list of 17 players who were viewed fairly similarly to Odunze coming out of college, and enables us to see what history has to say about reasonable expectations for Odunze, both as a rookie and in his career.

Rookie Performance

With that setup in mind, let’s take a look at how those 17 WRs fared as rookies. Full data can be seen here, but the average stat line for these players was 13 games and 680 snaps played, with 91 targets leading to 54 catches for 766 yards and 5 TD.

That’s not bad – those values would have ranked 41st among WR in targets, 46th in receptions, 40th in yards, and 28th in TD. Basically, the average player in this sample has performed like a mid-tier WR2.

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Establishing (Realistic) Expectations for Caleb Williams

| July 8th, 2024

The Bears have three rookies with a chance to play meaningful roles on offense or defense this year, so I want to take some time this week to look at what history can tell us about what to expect for those players, both in their rookie seasons and in their careers. We’ll start today with QB Caleb Williams, shift tomorrow to WR Rome Odunze, and end with a look at DE Austin Booker.

The Setup

To get a baseline for Caleb Williams, I looked at the last 10 QBs drafted 1st overall, going back to Sam Bradford in 2010. I only wanted to look at QBs drafted 1st overall because they are significantly different than other highly drafted QBs in a few notable ways:

  • They start immediately. 9 of the 10 #1 picks in this sample started at least 10 games as rookie, with an average of 14.3 starts. 5 of the 19 QBs drafted 2-10 in the same years started fewer than 10 games, with an average of only 10.8 starts for the sample.
  • They have better career outcomes. 7 of the 10 #1 picks in this sample earned significant 2nd contracts to be starting QBs, with the verdict still out on 2023 pick Bryce Young. Only 8 of 19 drafted 2-10 hit the same threshold (I am assuming CJ Stroud will as one of those 8), with the verdict still out on Anthony Richardson.

QBs are by far the most valuable players in the NFL, and so any QB who is widely regarded as a top-level prospect is going to get drafted #1 overall. Accordingly, I want to compare Williams directly to his peers, not to others who might get drafted highly out of desperation.

Rookie performance

With that setup in mind, let’s take a look at how these 10 QBs fared as rookies. Full data can be seen here, but the average stat line for these players was 504 pass attempts, 60% completion, 6.7 yards/attempt, 17 TD, 13 INT, and an 80.2 passer rating.

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Zooming in on Chicago’s Pass Rush, Part 3: Defensive Tackles

| June 12th, 2024

This is the final installment of a 3-part series looking at Chicago’s 2023 pass rush.

  • In part one, we learned that the Bears had one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL, though it improved a bit after trading for Montez Sweat, especially when they were willing to blitz.
  • In part two, we saw that Montez Sweat is a good but not great pass rusher, while all of the other defensive ends on the roster are bad at rushing the passer.

Today, we’re going to end the series by exploring Chicago’s defensive tackles.

Overall Efficiency

We’ll start with a season-long look at how Chicago’s main defensive tackles performed when rushing the passer. The table below shows a variety of per-snap metrics, including how they ranked compared to the 98 DTs league-wide who had at least 200 pass rush snaps. A few quick notes:

  • All data comes from Pro Football Focus (PFF).
  • Win rate is the percentage of snaps where PFF determines that the rusher has beaten the blocker at any point in the snap. This is admittedly subjective, and thus should not be used on its own, but can be a helpful part of a larger picture.
  • 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.
  • True pass sets look only at plays that do not give offensive linemen a built in advantage: no play action, no screens, and the throw time has to be at least 2 seconds. This lets us see how effectively a player rushes the passer when they most likely know they are getting after the QB, and the offense knows they have to block for a while.
  • Values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

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Zooming in on Chicago’s Pass Rush, Part 2: Defensive Ends

| June 11th, 2024

This is the 2nd installment of a 3-part series looking at Chicago’s pass rush from 2023. In part one, we learned that the overall team pass rush was among the worst in the NFL.

Today, we’ll be examining how effectively Chicago’s defensive ends rushed the passer last year.

Overall Efficiency

We’ll start with a season-long look at how Chicago’s main defensive ends performed when rushing the passer. The table below shows a variety of per-snap metrics, including how they ranked compared to the 95 edge rushers league-wide who had at least 200 pass rush snaps. A few quick notes:

  • All data comes from Pro Football Focus (PFF).
  • Data for Montez Sweat is only for the 9 games he played in Chicago.
  • Win rate is the percentage of snaps where PFF determines that the rusher has beaten the blocker at any point in the snap. This is admittedly subjective, and thus should not be used on its own, but can be a helpful part of a larger picture.
  • 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.
  • True pass sets look only at plays that do not give offensive linemen a built in advantage: no play action, no screens, and the throw time has to be at least 2 seconds. This lets us see how effectively a player rushes the passer when they most likely know they are getting after the QB, and the offense knows they have to block for a while.
  • Values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

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Zooming in on Chicago’s Pass Rush, Part 1: Team Performance

| June 10th, 2024

This is the start of a 3-part series examining Chicago’s pass rush in 2023 and what expectations should be for 2024. The content covered in each part roughly breaks down as follows:

Part 1: Overall team pass rush, and the impact of trading for Montez Sweat.
Part 2: Defensive end individual pass rushing efficiency.
Part 3: Defensive tackle individual pass rushing efficiency, including rookie progression for Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens.

Let’s dive right in!

Overall results

We’ll start by examining Chicago’s overall team performance rushing the passer last year. The table below shows how the Bears ranked out of 32 NFL teams in generating sacks and pressures, as well as how often they blitzed. All values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are in red. All data for this article, unless otherwise noted, is from Pro Football Reference.

Side note: sorry if the tables don’t show up well in the article. You can click on them to view in full on a separate page. 

A few thoughts:

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