Bears face opportunity to bolster Matt Eberflus’ defense in free agency
Editor’s note: This column has been updated and adjusted following the Bears’ trade of the No. 1 overall pick to the Panthers on Friday evening. Follow along with Marquee Sports Network for continued coverage of this blockbuster move.
Matt Eberflus has a vision for what he wants the Bears’ defense to be.
Eberflus wants size and athleticism on the defensive line, dynamic linebackers who play with fundamentals, and a secondary filled with playmakers ready to take away the football. The Bears simply didn’t have what Eberflus needed to implement his desire defensively last season.
The Bears created pressure on just 15.9% of dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks, the second-worst mark in the NFL. They finished the season with only 20 sacks over 17 games and were led in that statistic by a safety in Jaquan Brisker. Chicago’s defense was gashed for the second-most ground yards allowed and the most rushing scores surrendered.
By the end of a transitional rebuilding season, the Bears had traded mainstays Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn, lost Eddie Jackson to a season-ending injury, and had shut down Jaylon Johnson, Kyler Gordon and Jack Sanborn due to injuries. With each passing game in 2022, Eberflus’ defense never stood a chance.
As the Bears look towards their opportunity ahead in free agency — which begins with open negotiations permitted Monday at 11 a.m. CT — a prominent goal is to address these great needs on defense and build Eberflus’ identity.
The Bears are set to arrive into Monday with north of $75 million in salary cap space, this after agreeing to a blockbuster deal for the No. 1 overall pick that includes the acquisition of star wide receiver D.J. Moore. Moore is due more than $20 million in 2023 and under contract for three more seasons. The Falcons, who have $67.3 million in cap space available, are the next-closest team in salary cap space.
Ryan Poles, Chicago’s second-year general manager, said the goal is to approach the open market cautiously and recognize the risk of losing that “flexibility” the Bears currently boast.
“Take advantage of now but still not trying to hurt you down the road,” Poles said.
The goal for Poles and Eberflus is to bring the Bears sustained success — and that began in 2022 by tearing down the roster they inherited. While a selective approach to the open market is certainly wise, this free-agent class offers defensive players who can impact the Bears next season and beyond.
Javon Hargrave, a dominant defensive lineman who starred with the Eagles’ vaunted defense, is considered the top defensive player available. He had 11 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss last season while posting a Pro Football Focus pass-rushing grade (92.2) that trailed only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones.
The 30-year-old Hargrave could command $20 million annually, but he would be the type of disruptive presence up front that Eberflus is seeking. The Bears are expected to be players in the pursuit of Hargrave, a source indicated.
Dre’Mont Jones might be a better fit for the Bears as they look to bolster their defensive front. He’s hitting the market at just 26 years of age and posted 22 sacks over 56 games with the Broncos. Signing a player such as Jones who’s just entering his prime fits Poles’ long-term objective while offering a key figure for 2023.
Poles’ first major free-agent deal as the Bears’ general manager came with defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, a three-year, $45-million contract that was never signed last March. Chicago’s brass was concerned with a foot injury Ogunjobi sustained during the postseason and opted not to sign him. By the point that decision was reached, the premier defensive linemen were plucked from the market.
It seems nearly certain that the Bears will aggressively pursue a defensive lineman at the start of free agency. After all, Eberflus sees the 3-technique position as “the engine that makes everything go.” But there are plenty of needs to fill elsewhere.
The Bears must sharpen their edge rush after struggling to generate pressure last season. They shouldn’t by any means give up on young pass rushers Trevis Gipson and Dominique Robinson, but also must view them as rotational depth for 2023. Though this free-agent class doesn’t feature top pass rushers, the Bears won’t have to break the bank to upgrade. Marcus Davenport, Arden Key, Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and Yannick Ngakoue lead the group of edge rushers who fit the Poles’ hopes for youth and disruption.
After dealing Smith to the Ravens prior to the trade deadline, the Bears never filled his void at the weakside linebacker position. Doing so in free agency will be a key priority.
Tremaine Edmunds would be an excellent fit for the Bears at linebacker. He’s still just 24 years old and a freakish athlete at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, the type of skilled player who could thrive in Eberflus’ defense. Edmunds has posted more than 100 tackles in each of his five seasons with the Bills and is available on the open market because of Buffalo’s dire salary cap situation.
Edmunds was the second off-ball linebacker selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, chosen just eight picks after Smith was drafted by the Bears. Though Edmunds played the middle linebacker position in Buffalo, he might be a better fit at the weakside position.
The Bears could also target Bobby Okereke, reuniting Eberflus with a player he mentored through his first three NFL seasons with the Colts. A third-round pick to Indianapolis in 2019, Okereke recorded 283 combined tackles and 188 solo tackles while emerging as a gifted linebacker.
The Bears deserve to be optimistic about their defensive backfield for the future, with hopes that Brisker and Gordon can stick for the long term. Johnson is in line for contract extension this offseason while Jackson played at a Pro Bowl level over a dozen games prior to his injury in November. But there’s still a void at the outside cornerback position — especially if the Bears are committed to Gordon developing as a nickel cornerback.
The Bears should seek to sign 26-year-old Rock Ya-Sin, who spent three seasons as an outside cornerback in Eberflus’ defense with the Colts before being traded to the Raiders last March. He could bring a steady presence opposite Johnson at cornerback and help improve this secondary.
Just as the Bears are preaching patience in their plan for the future, this defense will take time to meet the expectations of Eberflus. But there’s opportunity in free agency to ignite a turnaround for this unit.
Poles is preparing a careful process as he navigates through the open market, understanding the risks in play. There are free-agent defenders available who fit for the Bears — allowing Eberflus’ vision hopes to become a reality.