UA-59049186-1 Chicago Bears 2023 Season Preview: Defensive line - Good if it Goes

Chicago Bears 2023 Season Preview: Defensive line

Now in a nicer shade of blue. [Photo: ESPN]

All spring and summer, your author had a bad feeling that the Bears were going to whiff on defensive ends in free agency and the draft and end up overpaying Yannick Ngakoue as a panic move. They did whiff and they did bring in Ngakoue, but they did so at a reasonable $10.5 million for a one-year deal. 

An eighth-year man out of Maryland, Ngakoue was drafted in the third round in 2016 and immediately made an impact, racking up 8 sacks his rookie year. He amassed a career-high 12 the following year, which earned him his lone trip to the Pro Bowl. Rather than taking the next step and becoming a true star, though, Ngakoue settled into a role as a good, but not great, edge rusher. He’s never had fewer than 8 sacks in a season, but he’s never had more than 10 since that Pro Bowl year. After four years in Jacksonville, he’s now on his fifth team in four seasons. In 2020, he got into an argument on Twitter with the son of Jaguars owner, and pro wrestling promoter, Tony Khan, leading to Ngakoue demanding a trade. He got his wish and was shipped to Minnesota. He was traded again during the 2020 campaign to Baltimore. He would sign a two-year deal with the Raiders prior to the 2021 season, then was, guess what, traded again, this time to Indianapolis. After finishing his contract in Indianapolis, he hit free agency, where he was signed by the Bears in early August. The future Immaculate Grid fixture will be a big help for a Bears defense that was sorely lacking up front, but is unlikely to be a true game changer. Also, your author questions his run defense. On the plus side, Ngakoue has been very good at staying healthy and on the field, playing at least 15 games every year of his career thus far.

Had Ngakoue been signed to be the Bears’ #2 EDGE, your author would be feeling pretty good. He wasn’t, so now we look for anything to put opposite him. The most likely answer is Demarcus Walker, signed in the offseason after a career-best season in Tennessee that saw him total a career-high 7 sacks. Entering his seventh season, Walker has never been a full-time starter and played in every game of the season only once – last year, so it’s possible that there’s still room for him to grow as a player. Your author sees that as somewhat unlikely, however, and advises you, the reader, to expect a capable EDGE and not much more. Walker possesses the size you like to see in a Tampa-2 strong side end and is big enough to move inside in some pass rush packages. For that to work, though, the Bears need to find another viable pass rusher. Which, uhh…

Terell Lewis stands appears to be the best of the rest to your author thus far. Lewis was drafted in the third round of the 2020 draft out of Alabama by the Rams, where he spent three years and picked up a Super Bowl ring, while doing not very much on the field. He was waived by the Rams late in 2022, after which the Bears signed him to their practice squad. Lewis has had a nice preseason, which, obvious caveats apply, but nobody else has anything going for them better than that, so here we are. 

Also having a nice preseason is Trevis Gipson. The former Tulsa Golden Hurricane has shown the ability to produce in the past, racking up 7 sacks in 2021. After that, though, he fell off big time. He totaled only 3 sacks in 2022 and was never much of a factor. The hammer swinger has all the physical tools, which he’s shown in the preseason…against third and fourth stringers. While his potential may be intriguing to Ryan Poles, it’s worth noting that he wasn’t a Poles draft pick and there’s someone else on the roster who was who also possesses some untapped potential. 

Dominique Robinson’s path here was far from the standard one. A high school QB turned college wide receiver turned defensive end, Robinson was a fifth-round pick out of Miami Ohio last year. Robinson had a very nice game in the season opener against San Francisco and then did little else. He had 1.5 sacks in the win over the Niners and none the rest of the way, even when he became a starter later in the year. He himself has acknowledged that he needs to be more consistent. We’ll see what happens.

Gervon Dexter has been the toast of camp, displaying the athleticism and physicality that led Ryan Poles to draft him in the second round this spring. The former Florida Gator has great size and freakish physical tools, but was inconsistent during his time in college, didn’t display great burst off the line, and played with questionable technique. That said, Florida was kind of a mess, so it’s not crazy to think that quality coaching can straighten him out. He’s viewed as a 3-tech, but wasn’t much of a sack producer at Florida, totaling just five in three years. This is another area the Bears’ coaches will be sure to be working on, as getting pressure with four is vital in Matt Eberflus’ defense.

Zacch Pickens was Poles’ other high pick on the defensive line. A third-round pick out of South Carolina, Pickens has shined during the preseason. Pickens is being used as more of a nose tackle in camp, but can also play 3T. One thing the Bears defensive line definitely has going for it is versatility – Pickens, Dexter, and Justin Jones can all play either interior spot. Pickens totaled 11.5 sacks as a Gamecock, 9 of which came in his junior and senior years. The issue, much like Dexter, was inconsistency. Another area of concern, like Dexter, but more worrying if the plan is for him to spend more time at 1T, was his ability to handle double teams. He’s shown improvement in that area this far, though caveats about the level of competition apply. While growing pains are very likely, early returns have been encouraging. 

Justin Jones enters his second year as a Chicago Bear after spending the first four of his career with the Chargers. A year ago, Jones was a capable interior lineman, but not much more. That’s all he’s ever been, so this space cautions against expecting anything more. Jones did play in every game a year ago and should provide veteran leadership to the two rookies on the interior. He, like the pair of aforementioned rookies, can play either defensive tackle spot. While probably a better 3T, putting him at 1T while the rookies adjust to the NFL might not be a bad idea. 

Over the offseason, the Bears picked up a legit nose in Andrew Billings. A seventh-year man out of Baylor, Billings is a space eater. The former Ugly Color Bear spent the first four years of his career in Cincinnati before signing with Cleveland prior to the 2020 season, which he ultimately opted out of. Waived by the Browns in November of 2021, Billings found work on a couple practice squads before landing with the Raiders for the 2022 season. Reports out of camp have been positive for Billings. He figures to mostly be a factor on run downs. 

UPDATE: Lewis and Gipson did not make the team. As with the quarterback situation, much of the team preview is written before final cuts. Unlike the quarterback situation, Poles and Eberflus did not listen to my opinion here, as Rasheem Green made the team over both Lewis and Gipson, despite a preseason from Green that your author would describe as dreadful. He did not seem worth mentioning in a 10,000-word team preview. It was that bad. He had no ability to contain the run and it’s not like he was all over opposing quarterbacks. Anyway, Green spent four years in Seattle, the last of which (2021) saw him get a starting job and amass 6.5 sacks. He signed with the Texans during the 2022 offseason. He started only 5 games in Houston and accumulated only 3.5. He would’ve fit in well here last year. Well, he’s here now. Hopefully, he makes that look like a good decision. I’m not hopeful. 

Whatever Elmo’s calling it nowThreads: @312sportsguy

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