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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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Training Camp Preview Pod: Defense

| July 16th, 2024

I joined forces with Bill Zimmerman over at Windy City Gridiron to preview the Bears’ Training Camp — if you’re looking for a primer on some of the defense’s upcoming camp stories, look no further!

Coming up, I hope to have a few in-depth training camp previews out on the site… but for now, we’re still in the final days of the offseason. Take in this defensive episode today and I’ll post the corresponding offensive episode soon after.

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Offseason Optimism and Concern: Defense

| July 26th, 2023

Training camp is that magical time of year when every NFL fan can have exactly what they want. If you are an optimist who wants to believe your favorite team is going to be good, there’s plenty of reason for hope. If you get your jollies on being negative (you know who you are), it’s not hard to find something to be pessimistic about.

Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, today’s article will have something for you. Let’s go through the roster position-by-position and identify why you should be hopeful and why you should be concerned. We did the offense yesterday, so today will focus on the defense.


Defensive Line

Reason for hope: Uhhh… this isn’t exactly an easy place to start. I guess it can’t be worse than last year, when the pass rush was arguably the worst the NFL has seen in the last five years after trading Robert Quinn away midseason. The Bears return Justin Jones and Trevis Gipson, who are both capable but not dominant players, and invested in a whole host of players between free agency (DeMarcus Walker, Andrew Billings, Rasheem Green) and the draft (Gervon Dexter, Zacch Pickens). Dexter in particular has a ton of physical tools and earned rave reviews throughout offseason practices, and could be a rookie who surprises. This group probably won’t be great at rushing the passer, but they don’t have to be to still be effective and help the Bears have a competent defense (as DBB’s Andrew Dannehy pointed out a few weeks ago).

Cause for concern: Barring a rookie stepping up in a big way, nobody on the roster even remotely resembles a top-level starter that can produce while drawing extra defensive attention. At best, this defensive line is a bunch of secondary pieces who can hopefully hold up against the run, but won’t offer much else. You know it’s bad when Terrell Lewis – who enters his 4th NFL season with 6 career sacks and is switching from LB to DE this offseason – drew the most hype of any defensive lineman during OTAs.


Linebacker

Reason for hope: The Bears signed two of the best linebackers available on the free agent market in Tremaine Edmunds and TJ Edwards. Both are solid all-around players who can defend the run and the pass, and they are just entering their primes as they prepare for their 5th NFL season. The depth behind them is pretty solid too, as Jack Sanborn impressed as a rookie last year and 5th round pick Noah Sewell drew positive reports from OTAs when he ran with the starters while Sanborn was out hurt.

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Offseason Optimism and Concern: Offense

| July 25th, 2023

Training camp is that magical time of year when every NFL fan can have exactly what they want. If you are an optimist who wants to believe your favorite team is going to be good, there’s plenty of reason for hope. If you get your jollies on being negative (you know who you are), it’s not hard to find something to be pessimistic about.

Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, today’s article will have something for you. Let’s go through the roster position-by-position and identify why you should be hopeful and why you should be concerned. We’ll start today with the offense, and move to the defense tomorrow.


Quarterback

Reason for hope: Justin Fields took a small step forward in Year 2, and now enters Year 3 with a vastly improved supporting cast and familiarity with the offense, both of which are firsts for his NFL career. He fits the criteria for making the leap to superstardom better than any other young QB in the NFL.

Cause for concern: Fields takes a ton of sacks and has really struggled on short and quick passes so far in the NFL. Those passes make up a bulk of a QB’s pass attempts, and there is no guarantee he gets better there. If he can’t improve at the easy stuff, he’s never going to be a quality NFL starter.


Running Back

Reason for hope: Khalil Herbert and D’Onta Foreman are two of the best rushers in the NFL, as they finished 4th and 7th, respectively, in rush yards over expectation in 2022. They are both significantly better runners than David Montgomery, which should improve Chicago’s rushing attack that was already among the best in the NFL.

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Training Camp Primer: Keep An Eye On Roschon Johnson

| July 24th, 2023

The wait is finally (almost) over — Bears training camp is (nearly) upon us!

Rookies have reported to Halas Hall already, Veterans report tomorrow, and practices officially start Wednesday — that means more content is coming for all of us that starved through the dog days of the offseason, and it’s the perfect time to start previewing  what I think will be the best storylines to follow throughout camp this year.

For starters: How will Roschon Johnson fit into the 2023 Bears’ RB room?


Before the Draft took place, the 2023 Bears’ RB room was well-rounded in theory but a bit over-specialized in practice:

  • Khalil Herbert is a fabulous runner and a perfect system fit, but both his pass-blocking and pass-catching can be outright liabilities when the offense gets behind the chains
  • D’Onta Foreman brings experience to the Bears as a hard-nosed one-cut RB, but offenses have avoided asking him to catch the ball since he first he got to the league and I doubt the Bears will expect much out of him in that phase of the game
  • Travis Homer is a capable Special Teamer and all-around 3rd Down RB, but unless the Bears deviate from 2022 (where Herbert & Montgomery rarely substituted mid-drive, opting to rotate between offensive possessions) it may be hard to get him on the field for passing scenarios outside obvious 3rd downs

All of these RBs are talented players that produce well when playing to their strengths, but as of early April none of the RBs looked ready to take on an old-school 3-down role within an offense that’s utilized 3-down runners (Christian McCaffrey, Aaron Jones, etc) to great effect — if an RB can capably sell Play Action, block on dropbacks, produce when handed the ball, and catch the ball when it’s thrown to him, this offensive scheme rewards him handsomely with open space and yardage galore.

Enter Roschon Johnson, a 22 year old out of Texas with remarkably little tread on his tires due to sitting behind phenom runner Bijan Robinson for all but his freshman year. This 6’2″ 220+lb has all the traits you’re looking for on tape, including:

  • A quick first step that helps challenge tackling angles from the moment he takes the handoff
  • A clear preference for playing North-South (as opposed to East-West)
  • The explosion to get to wide lanes when needed (3rd clip is a great example of him exploding laterally multiple times while staying downhill throughout)
  • The contact balance to grind out extra yards and a wicked stiff arm to boot
  • Experience blocking in both standard pass sets and less orthodox sets (ex: on the move)
  • Solid hands, though his tape lacks opportunities in the pass game due to circumstance

And if you ask me, he has an opportunity to play in Chicago very quickly if he makes an impression in Training Camp.

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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

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Grading the Roster: Offense

| July 19th, 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.


Quarterback: 4

Key Players: Justin Fields, PJ Walker

Others: Nathan Peterman, Tyson Bagent

I should start here by noting that I’m grading based on past production so that I don’t project what I personally think will happen in the future. After a terrible 1st month, Fields more or less spent the bulk of his sophomore campaign as an average passer and elite runner, though he also took a ton of sacks, and a decent number of them were his fault. There is some hope he can make a Year 3 leap towards superstardom, but until he does, it’s hard to rank him much higher than average.

The overall grade gets dinged because of depth; Fields has missed multiple games due to injury in each of his first two seasons, and PJ Walker seems like a less than ideal backup with a career 58% completion rate, 6.4 yards per attempt, and 5 TD to 11 INT. Peterman and Bagent will compete to be the practice squad QB, and we can only hope that we don’t see either of them take a meaningful snap this season.


Running Back: 5

Key Players: Khalil Herbert, D’Onta Foreman, Roschon Johnson

Others: Travis Homer, Trestan Ebner, Khari Blasingame, Robert Burns

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Previewing The Man in the Middle

| July 12th, 2023

We’re officially 2 weeks out from the start of Bears’ training camp, and that means we’re 14 days away from obsessively scrolling Twitter (and other social media platforms) for updates on Chicago Bears’ practices. With that in mind, let’s spend the next two weeks re-familiarizing ourselves with the Bears’ new additions so that, come camp time, we know the names to watch for.

To start, let’s look at…

Tremaine Edmunds

Backstory: Edmunds was the 16th overall pick of the 2018 draft and, ironically enough, was constantly compared to Roquan Smith pre-draft due their differences in style & perceived value. Edmunds had the size, length, and speed that made linebacking coaches salivate but whose instincts needed serious development whereas Roquan was seen as the ready-made modern WILL LB prototype despite being undersized.

It’s a bizarre twist of fate that the Bears effectively traded one standout first-round linebacker for another (while netting draft picks in the process) in their journey from Roquan to Edmunds, but based on Matt Eberflus’ penchant for size and length in his coverage linebackers I can’t help feeling like Edmunds will get featured within Chicago’s defense in ways that Alan Williams didn’t want to feature Smith.

I’m not normally one for paying Linebackers at the rate you could pay a formidable defensive lineman, but physical freaks like Edmunds  always command a hefty price tag — just watch him move in open space and you’ll see rare physical gifts on display. Suffice it to say, you can’t teach those traits — when pursuing a ball-carrier side-to-side, he’s a nightmare.


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