The Bears have options in the NFL Draft but should they go for an elite defensive end?
Ahead of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears have done an admirable job shoring up areas of need along their roster with strong free agent signings, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
After inside linebacker was arguably the Bears’ weakest position group last year—manned then by Shea McClellin and Christian Jones—GM Ryan Pace managed to score two of Pro Football Focus’ top three free agent linebackers in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman.
Adding Trevathan and Freeman to a linebacking corps that includes outside linebacker Pernell McPhee—PPF’s 10th-best outside linebacker in the league last year—Willie Young, and Lamarr Houston all of a sudden turns a weak unit into a legitimately formidable one for the foreseeable future.
In the secondary, re-signing Tracy Porter to play alongside Kyle Fuller gives the Bears two starting corners who, despite struggling for parts of last season, actually had solid campaigns on the whole and should remain stable, if not spectacular, options next year.
Then grabbing Akiem Hicks adds a solid veteran player along the defensive line after he finished in the top 15 in PFF rankings for defensive tackles despite having limited reps for the Patriots last season.
Now that the initial rush of free agency is over, however, the attention shifts forward again to the draft, and though the Bears have made strides in addressing their most glaring roster holes, they still need to add impact players to their defense in the first few rounds. After the effort they made to enhance the playmaking ability of their linebacking corps, it would make a great deal of sense for Chicago to use the 11th overall pick (and possibly even the 8th pick in the second round as well) to upgrade their defensive line.
While the Bears also need to address who will be starting alongside Adrian Amos at safety next season, there are too many talented defensive linemen at the top end of the draft to ignore, and they badly need one. The Bears got a solid rookie season out of NT Eddie Goldman (22 tackles and 4.5 sacks), the only defensive line starter to register a positive grade last season according to PFF metrics, and will have Hicks this year, but that still leaves a hole at the other 3-4 defensive tackle.
At this point, neither Ego Ferguson nor Will Sutton—the 11th worst defensive lineman in the league according to PFF—have proven to be better than rotation players, which all but necessitates the Bears looking hard at the standout defensive lineman from this year’s draft class.
Best case: DeForest Buckner (Oregon). He has the size you want in a 3-4 defensive end (6-7, 281 pounds) and thoroughly dominated the Pac-12 to the tune of 83 tackles—17.5 for loss—and 10.5 sacks. While a bit raw technique-wise and not a particularly explosive athlete, Buckner simply overwhelmed people both in the run and pass game due using size, strength, and relentless effort. Case in point:
Whether or not he was single-blocked or double-teamed didn’t seem to matter greatly either, as he frequently overpowered or outworked double teams on his way to sacks. The rub here is that there’s a good chance Buckner doesn’t last until pick #11, as he is consistently discussed as being one of the top defensive lineman in the draft along with Ohio State’s Joey Bosa (who, barring injury or some kind of scandal, will definitely not be around when the Bears are on the clock).
Should a rash of quarterback and wide receiver selections push him out of the top 10, though, this would be slam dunk pick for Pace. Given his natural size and motor as well as the obvious abilities this Bears’ coaching staff has at getting the best out of its players, Buckner could start paying dividends quickly in his rookie season.
Consolation prize: A’Shawn Robinson (Alabama)
Robinson is absolutely massive (6-4, 320 pounds) and was an immovable object in Alabama’s vaunted front, ranking in PFF’s top 15 defensive lineman against the run both in 2014 (4th) and 2015 (11th). Here he is completely ruining Missouri’s running game by himself:
The case for Robinson is a bit more difficult, however, because stopping the run appears to be his only trick: in three seasons with the Tide, Robinson only managed to notch 9.0 sacks; to reiterate, Buckner had 10.5 sacks last season. While some of this might be attributed to scheme and not necessarily to an inability to rush the passer, his stock may be suffering from the perception that, like Jarvis Jenkins last year and perhaps Hicks this year, he is primarily a base-package, two-down lineman that would have to come off the field on 3rd down.
So while Robinson’s run-stopping prowess is difficult to discount, he might actually be a better value on Day 2 of the draft, should he remain without a team that long. Robinson’s Alabama teammate, Jarran Reed, could also be of interest for this spot; though Reed projects more as a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, there is the possibility that he is versatile enough to slide out to the end position.
Wild card #1: Robert Nkemdiche
For the sake of this discussion, let’s talk about the football side first (like 80 total tackles with 16.0 for loss, as well as 6.0 sacks) and not the odd character issues. Also, let’s assume he’s even still available, which he very well might not be. Unlike the previously mentioned players, Nkemdiche is an explosive pass rusher on the inside, showing the ability to get off the ball quickly and beat blockers with bull rushes and other moves. Over his final two years at Ole Miss, he consistently graded out as one of the best pass rushers in the country, probably because he did this regularly:
For all of Nkemdiche’s dominance getting after the quarterback, though, scout’s view his run defense as questionable at best. A big red flag: Nkemdiche struggled to consistently beat double teams that he began to face routinely as his Ole Miss career progressed, which he would only face more of as a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. You can’t afford to get buried like this in a two-gap system:
To stop him being exposed in the run game, scouts have suggested that he’s better fit as a 4-3 defensive end, where he could use his size (6-5, 293 pounds) and strength to beat tight ends on running downs and then slide inside on passing downs to overwhelm guards and centers with his speed. Other issues include off-the-field troubles involving falling from a 4th floor window (possibly while trying to avoid police) and getting in fights at parties, which are truthfully the only reasons Nkemdiche sliding down to the 11th pick is even a remotely plausible scenario. If Nkemdiche somehow makes it out of the top 10, he would have to leap to the top of the Bears’ board (especially if Buckner is gone by this point).
Despite his issues in the run game, he has the potential to be a disruptive force on the defensive line that the Bears haven’t seen since Tommie Harris.
Wild Card #2: Shaq Lawson
Not many people had an answer for him last year, as he racked up 60 tackles (25.5 for loss) and 12.5 sacks while helping lead the Tigers to the national championship game. Lawson’s size (6-3, 275 pounds) fits him more in the profile of a 4-3 defensive end, but his strength and stoutness at the point of attack could make for an interesting debate if the Bears thought he could add some weight and slide inside to 3-4 defensive end. For one, Lawson, like most of the lineman discussed here, is not a pure pass-rusher in terms of speed and explosion anyway, relying on stacking and shedding blockers in the run game…
and overpowering people in pass rush situations:
Giving Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley fits is not a small feat, given that he is either the best or second-best tackle prospect in the draft (depending on how you feel about Laremy Tunsil). Scouts also have praised his abilities to take on double teams and to hold his own frequently without giving ground, an important quality either for a 4-3 or 3-4 end. Lawson’s problem at the moment is a nagging right shoulder injury that forced him to leave a few games late last season, though he never missed a game in three years at Clemson and still managed to play in the national championship. That shoulder was apparently flagged by medical staff at the NFL Combine, and while Lawson has maintained that surgery is not needed, he will need to undergo a re-check of that shoulder to allay teams that have him on their first round boards. Regardless of whether his medical exams check out, Lawson should still be in play when the Bears pick at #11, especially if both Buckner and Nkemdiche are gone. Given his past production as a pass rusher, Lawson is likely a more valuable pick at this spot than Robinson would be, though the Bears would have to feel assured that he could handle a move inside in their 3-4 scheme.
Though it’s interesting to think about the Bears drafting a dynamic edge rusher (Emmanuel Ogbah, a DE/OLB tweener prospect) or a corner (Vernon Hargreaves or Mackensie Alexander) with their 11th pick as well, the Bears’ need for another defensive lineman that can step in right away and make plays on day one trumps other positional needs, especially given their recent free agent signings.
Particularly in the 3-4 scheme, having lineman that occupy double teams is what allows linebackers like Trevathan, Freeman, and McPhee to stuff running plays and apply quicker pressure to the quarterback on passing downs, which in turn can minimize the amount of time the secondary has cover receivers. In short, a good defensive line can make an entire defense better; having seen what disruptive defensive fronts can do in Chicago firsthand, Bears fans can attest to that.
Besides, there’s plenty of room to add depth at outside linebacker, in the secondary, and possibly even at quarterback on Days 2-3. But hey, maybe the Bears will go off the reservation and get Carson Wentz at #11 just to keep us on our toes. Guess we won’t know until April 28.