LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Days into his first free agency experience in Chicago, Bears general manager Ryan Poles was forced to activate the contingency plan after striking out on the player they hoped would man the most important position in Matt Eberflus’ defense.
After defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (foot) failed a physical upon agreeing to a three-year contract worth $40.5 million, the Bears quickly signed Justin Jones to fill the three-technique position. Through 15 games, Jones has two sacks, which is tied with defensive end Trevis Gipson for the lead among Chicago’s defensive linemen.
The Bears have struggled to pressure quarterbacks all season. Defensive linemen have accounted for just two sacks in Chicago’s past nine games: nose tackle Armon Watts in a Week 12 loss to the Jets and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad against Washington in Week 6.
The Bears have a league-worst 18 sacks, only 8.5 of which belong to linemen (sixth-fewest in the NFL). Rookie safety Jaquan Brisker’s high-energy blitzing has him leading the team with four sacks despite missing two games. Linebacker Roquan Smith, who was traded from Chicago to Baltimore ahead of Week 9, remains No. 2 on the Bears with 2.5 sacks.
Rookie Dominique Robinson (1.5) joins Jones and Gipson as the only Bears defensive linemen with more than one sack this year, which also includes Robert Quinn’s sack in Week 2. Quinn was traded to the Eagles at the deadline.
Those paltry numbers will require Chicago to utilize substantial resources on its pass rush this offseason. With north of $110 million in salary-cap space and eight draft picks, the Bears need to acquire players to fix a defense that ranks 31st both in pressuring quarterbacks (22.1%) and generating sacks (3.9% of dropbacks).
And considering they might end up drafting first overall, there will be options.
Chicago has had 92 opponent dropbacks when the defense has recorded at least one pass-rush win, which is the fewest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The Bears allowed a QBR of 35.1 on those dropbacks compared to a 74 QBR on the 315 dropbacks where they failed to record a pass-rush win.
The three-technique, who lines up on the outside shoulder of a guard, is responsible for wreaking havoc in the backfield as the defense’s primary interior pass-rusher. Eberflus coached Colts three-technique DeForest Buckner from 2020-21, and Buckner led Indianapolis’ defense in sacks both years.
“We call it the engine that makes everything go, because in the running game, you can’t run at the three and you can’t run away from him, so it’s hard to really dictate where you’re going to run the ball, number one, and it creates a lot of free lanes for your linebackers to run through in the run game,” Eberflus said. “But in the pass game, a lot of times when you have two of them, you have a three-technique and you have a defensive end opposite of him, it's hard to move your line that way. He creates a lot of one-on-ones, and he's typically overmatched on a guard. Typically your best offensive linemen are on the outside, and if you have your best player on the inside, that's certainly an advantage for you.”
The Colts traded a first-round pick to the 49ers in exchange for Buckner in 2019 and promptly extended him on a four-year deal worth $84 million. With no guaranteed money remaining on the final two years of his contract, Buckner may want to play somewhere else as Indianapolis appears headed for a rebuild. A trade would reunite him with Eberflus and cement the “engine” in Chicago’s defense.
The free agency market also features a handful of intriguing options. Philadelphia’s Javon Hargrave has been one of the most disruptive interior pass-rushers in 2022 with 10 sacks, 14 quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Washington’s Daron Payne has also made the most of his contract year with 10 sacks, 17 quarterback hits and has also been one of the better run-stopping interior linemen. For a Bears defense that has allowed the third-most rushing yards per game (151.2), finding someone who can play the run as well as rush the passer is a necessity.
The Bears can also look at the draft. Chicago holds the No. 2 overall pick, which Poles could spend on arguably the best defensive player in the draft: Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter.
“He’s exactly like Quinnen Williams when he was coming out of Alabama,” ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid said of Carter. “He just understands how to get to the quarterback. Really strong hands, double-team, single-team, it really doesn’t matter -- he’s able to penetrate and get to the quarterback. He’s not a guy that’s a space eater that’s going to clog the first level. He’s more of a get-up-the-field right now and just penetrate and destroy the line of scrimmage. Natural as a pass-rusher, really strong hands, already shows plenty of moves as a pass-rusher.”
While the 2023 draft is expected to feature an abundance of edge rushers the Bears could target on Day 2 and 3, top-tier interior pass-rushers are at a premium. Along with Carter, Reid projects three others to be taken in the top 50: Baylor’s Siaki Ika (who has played three-technique but projects as a nose tackle), Clemson’s Bryan Bresee and Florida’s Gervon Dexter.