Bears look to underrated, versatile Pernell McPhee to fix woeful defense
The Chicago Bears made the signing of former Ravens defensive lineman Pernell McPhee official on Wednesday morning. Reports indicate that it's a five-year, $40 million deal. It's a good move to acquire an underrated player, and it could pay big dividends for the team.
In 2014, Chicago fielded one of the worst defenses in the long and venerated history of the franchise. That defense, led by former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker allowed 34 passing touchdowns (only the Redskins were worse), tied with the Redskins and trailed only the Falcons in net yards per attempt at 7.2, led the league in passing first downs allowed with 227, allowed 4.3 yards per carry on the ground and gave up 442 points—only the Raiders were worse. Chicago's awful coverage and middling pass rush let opposing quarterbacks post a 101.7 passer rating, second-worst in the NFL.
A lot of that had to do with Tucker's schemes, which seemed firmly rooted in the Cover 2 and Tampa 2 playbooks that were last relevant as base defenses about a decade ago. But personnel was also an issue—Chicago went all-in on defensive linemen in last year with the free-agent signings of Willie Young, Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen, and didn't have a lot to show for it. Young and Houston dealt with injuries, and Allen started to show his age.
[daily_cut.nfl]The Bears' top brass re-tooled with a new general manager (Ryan Pace) and coach (John Fox) this offseason, but the biggest upgrade may be the hire of former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to replace Tucker. Fangio schemes up a base 3-4 defense, but he will throw multiple fronts at opponents when the need arises, and that's where McPhee comes in. In four years with the Ravens, the former fifth-round pick out of Mississippi State has become one of the most productive and versatile pass-rushers in the league, though he's started a grand total of six games in his career. In 2014, McPhee was a situational player behind Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs on Baltimore's depth chart of outside linebackers, but he still registered 7.5 sacks, 24 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries—in just 616 total snaps.
Moreover, McPhee is able to create pressure and stop the run from just about any gap—he's become one of the most versatile defenders in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus's metrics, McPhee rushed the passer 75 times in 372 total passing snaps from the standard outside linebacker position; he also played 115 snaps as a defensive end on either side of the formation with his hand on the ground and 120 snaps came from other linebacker positions. In addition, McPhee rushed occasionally from a three-tech and one-tech defensive tackle positions or gaps, with a stand-up stance and with his hand on the ground.
The Ravens valued McPhee's versatility, but they also knew that he probably outpriced himself from their future with his play in 2014.
"You have to look at it this way: If we were to go after the market on Pernell, how many other players would we not have on the Baltimore Ravens?" Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome posited in late February. "And that's kind of the way we look at this thing. Do we pay market for some players? Yes, you can look at ... We paid market for Joe [Flacco], Eugene [Monroe], [Marshal] Yanda. I can name names for years. But, we have to look at how we can't pay everybody market value, because it would hurt our roster overall in trying to retain other guys and then go out in the market and get other guys."
The Bears went out and got McPhee, and it should be a great thing for a defense in desperate need.
The only question about giving McPhee a contract of this size is his ability to play as an every-down player—he's a better run-stopper than people think in small doses, but he'll most likely be a base "endbacker" in Fangio's defense (think of Ray McDonald in San Francisco), and that will require him to do different things. Based on his career to date, however, McPhee aligns himself with multiple roles and new challenges better than most. The Bears have over $20 million in 2015 cap room tied up in the Allen/Houston/Young threesome, so the obvious hope is that it'll all pay off in the new season.