Bears Seem Too Deep for Their Own Good

Analysis: Experienced backups abound after GM Ryan Pace combed through free agency in the offseason but with so much depth on the defensive line it almost seems they're looking to shed one of the starters.
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A conspiracy theorist could look at the Bears defensive line and what GM Ryan Pace did over the offseason and believe something was up.

They might deduce the team expected nose tackle Eddie Goldman to opt out again or retire, as one Chicago Tribune report suggested he was considering.

They signed back Mario Edwards Jr., signed Angelo Blackson and then added Mike Pennel after minicamp. This came after drafting nose tackle Khyiris Tonga.

The Pennel move looked like a precaution in case Goldman wasn't coming. Some video evidence on social media of Goldman this week suggested otherwise.

Pennel really hasn't played a lot of nose tackle in the NFL. He's usually been an end or tackle, but he has the size to do it at 330 pounds.

Another possibility? 

Akiem Hicks' name came up often in the trade discussion for Russell Wilson. Would the Bears be thinking about cutting or trading their veteran defensive end, who is in the last year of his contract?

It seems like a preposterous notion. Hicks is a player who can cave in a pocket or a running play. Guys his size who can play as a dynamic force—and doesn't merely fill a gap by occupying a blocker or two—are rare.

The Bears lost key line reserves Roy Robertson-Harris and Brent Urban in free agency, so they could have been refueling their depth supply with these line moves. If this is the case, it looks like they've done an outstanding job by keeping the quality high.

The same is true at several other positions.

When Pace signed Jeremiah Attaochu, he brought in the best reserve pass-rushing outside linebacker the team has had since Khalil Mack was acquired. They truly can have Mack rest for a few downs or series and still expect high production.

When the Bears had Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis two years ago, they had the best backup duo of inside linebackers they've had since installing the 3-4. They needed both, then they lose both. Last year they needed backup help again and had no one. So, acquiring former Bears linebacker Christian Jones seemed like a stroke of good fortune and genius.

Offensive depth improved on the line, wide receiver, running back and even quarterback. How many teams can say they have 197 career starts between their starting quarterback and third-stringer, and a backup who is the savior of the franchise?

The running back depth jumped off the chart when they brought in Damien Williams, considering lost backup Cordarrelle Patterson couldn't even play the position.

The Bears might have deficiencies but their overall depth of talent is excellent. Few teams have covered almost every starting position with a backup who has experience the way the Bears have.

There are limits to their depth, though.

While they have plenty of cornerbacks, no one can count on the quality of any player at this position except Jaylon Johnson. And he's only in his second season.

The Bears look deep but at cornerback sacrificing some depth for another starting level player with experience might have made for a more comfortable start to training camp.

Here's a player-by-player rating of Bears reserves:

DT Mario Edwards Jr.

Once they get past his two-game suspension, they'll hope to have production like last year when Edwards had career highs in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (6). He seems ideally suited for the three-technique spot he is playing when they go to the four-man pass rush. A 6-3, 280-pound down lineman seems like a mis-fitting piece on a defensive front of 300-pounders, but Edwards has found his niche and got in on a quarter of the defensive plays last year.

Position Rating: 3 on a scale of 0-5.

NT/DE Mike Pennel

A rotation member but usually not a starter, Pennel will not produce big numbers but can fill a role much like John Jenkins had last year. He'd be the sixth defensive lineman but with Hicks in his 30s, it's nice to have as many rotational players as possible.

Position Rating: 1 on a scale of 0-5.

DE Angelo Blackson

The Cardinals gave him more playing time than any time in his career and he produced career highs of sacks (2 1/2), pressures (12) and quarterback hits (8). This from a player whose strength actually is eating up blocks. Blackson doesn't look like the type of play maker Robertson-Harris or Nick Williams were in the scheme but he's fully capable and still young enough to make an impact as the fourth or fifth defensive lineman.

Position rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

ILB Christian Jones

The versatility of the 30-year-old inside linebacker is his real strength. He has been an inside and outside linebacker, and he has played in this scheme with the Bears from 2015-17. He'll be the third inside linebacker but has an ability to blitz. Jones' strength has not been pass coverage, and it's the same way for Austin Calitro, an other backup inside linebacker they signed. Jones is at his best stopping the run or blitzing so they better hope Roquan Smith remains healthy or Josh Woods improves his all-around play greatly.

Position rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

OLB Jeremiah Attaochu

Much like with starter Robert Quinn, Attaochu offers very little in terms of providing pass coverage on the flanks. He is an edge rusher more than an outside linebacker. He is coming off a year when he had five sacks and nine quarterback hits. Considering he played in only 38% of defensive snaps, six tackles for loss was a very high number. At 6-3, 252, Attaochu could offer a viable starting alternative should Quinn go into another funk like last year.

Position rating: 3 on a scale of 0-5.

OLB Trevis Gipson

As a rookie, Gipson got onto the field for only 71 plays as he was brought along slowly after being a down lineman in college. Gipson flashed a few times. He very nearly forced an interception against Green Bay when he forced Aaron Rodgers to throw it up for grabs, but Eddie Jackson dropped an interception. The next step will be for him to finish plays with sacks. Although he was a down lineman in college, Gipson has the quickness and agility to be an asset in covering the flat when required.

Position rating: 1 on a scale of 0-5.

S Deon Bush

Bush never has developed into a starter but gradually has made better plays on the ball and last year had his first career interception. He has held receivers to just over 50% receptions when he was targeted over the last three seasons while missing only two tackles in that period. He has benefited greatly from system knowledge and should again as the third safety.

Position rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

S DeAndre Houston-Carson

Very early in his career, Houston-Carson seemed destined for waivers. He took a practice squad assignment to heart, improved and regained a 53-man roster spot, became one of the best special teams players on the team and last year picked it up in pass coverage when he had chances to play more after a Bush injury. Like Bush, he had his first career interception and played 91 defensive snaps. Acquiring Marqui Christian and Jordan Lucas could push Houston-Carson but he has great system knowledge and when pushed in the past he responded.

Position rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

OL Alex Bars

This is the ideal backup offensive lineman because he showed last year he could be a jack of all trades. Bars started a game at center for the first time. The Bears already knew he could play guard and a little tackle. He made eight starts and had to give back the starting right guard spot when James Daniels returned this offseason from a torn pectoral muscle. There could be more than backup duty ahead in the future for Bars, with Daniels now in the final year of his contract after failing to fulfill all the expectations the team had for him.

Position rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

T/G Elijah Wilkinson

Wilkinson hasn't been a starter on the left side of the line, let alone a starting left tackle. Yet, that's where the Bears had him at the outset of OTAs while Teven Jenkins was still learning the offense. The Bears are hoping he can be a swing tackle, but at 329 pounds he's far more suited to right tackle or either guard. Wilkinson last year was among the lowest graded blockers in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. In four years, PFF had Wilkinson's best year as 2018 when he was 36th of 77 tackles graded. Wilkinson last year was 74th of 79 tackles and 49th of 81 in 2019. Still, Wilkinson rates a full level higher than last year's swing tackle. Jason Spriggs came with a reputation for being injured when called upon, and lived up to it.

Position rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

RB Damien Williams

Signing a proven, all-purpose back was necessary because of the Tarik Cohen injury and the overall inexperience of the other backs on the roster. The only question about Williams is how he'll respond following a year away as an opt-out. Williams has both speed and power. He ran 4.45 for the 40. Despite never carrying more than 50 times until the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, he has still caught 20 passes or more every season he's played, and had a career-high 30 in 2019. The 104-yard effort in Kansas City's Super Bowl win typified Williams at his best, as both a power and speed runner. Williams wasn't a prodigious gainer while operating behind a porous Miami line. He then vaulted to 5.1 yards a carry from 3.9 when he went to Kansas City. So the Bears may not see the kind of production the Chiefs did, unless their line quickly comes together.

Position rating: 3 on a scale of 0-5.

WR Anthony Miller

Last year Miller caught late, game-winning touchdown passes in Weeks 1 and 3. He never made another one the rest of the season. Miller's reception total also dipped from 52 to 49 and his 485 yards receiving were 171 less than in 2019. Keeping all of this in mind, it's entirely possible Miller bounces back. His decline in receptions could be traced to the Bears having other reliable targets, like Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet. Also, if Miller was having a poor year individually, why is it his catch percentage (catches/times targeted) improved to a career-high 64.5%. Other than his playoff fight, Miller didn't have a terrible year. Now it's a contract year and after the way his fortunes have gone in Chicago it wouldn't be surprising if it was his last year with the team. But he's plenty capable of bettering his numbers going forward as the slot receiver.

Position rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

TE Jimmy Graham

Graham moves down a spot in the pecking order, with Cole Kmet expected to see the most targets among tight ends in his second year. It would seem unlikely Graham can hit 50 receptions again if Kmet's opportunities increase. Even at 34, Graham improved his catch percentage to 65.8%, highest since 2016 in Seattle. However, Graham's yards per target decreased last year to the second-lowest mark of his career at 6.0. Considering he turns 35 during this season, it's to be expected. What can remain largely the same is his knack for making red-zone TD receptions. He tied for fifth in the NFL with seven and it doesn't require great speed to get open inside the 20, just knowledge of the field, the defense, good hands and a quarterback who can make the throw to him.

Position rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

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