Defensive Free Agent Issues Can Eat at Bears Depth

The injury situation for the Bears defense against New Orleans in the playoffs showed the Bears how critical having adequate backups can be but the salary cap situation threatens to deplete their reserves on the defensive side even more than last year.
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The most decisions are on the defensive side. And while they don't carry the wallop of their choices on Allen Robinson or Mitchell Trubisky, they can have a huge impact on the team.

These are decisions influencing Bears defensive depth as well as at least one starting position.

For instance, last year GM Ryan Pace failed to bring in an experienced inside linebacker in free agency or draft one with enough talent to play in case of an injury. Nor did they have a veteran cornerback presence on the roster.

Then came the playoffs and linebacker Roquan Smith, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and slot cornerback Buster Skrine had to miss the game with injuries. The Bears were left counting on a few cornerbacks with a handful of games worth of experience and a starting inside linebacker who had not played a down the entire regular season.

An added problem for the Bears this offseason in free agency is the conversion of the Los Angeles Chargers to the Vic Fangio defensive system under new head coach Brandon Staley., a former Bears assistant. They could come raiding the Bears' depth for players who can fit into their style of 3-4 defense.

So the free agency decisions the Bears make with plenty of defensive reserves can greatly impact the team's fate.

Here are the Bears defensive projections for players who could stay and who could go.

In some, the decision is obvious. In others, it's a coin flip and much will depend on how they navigate a tricky salary cap situation.

Going, going ...

Defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris — Sadly, the Bears have once again have a defensive lineman who has outgrown his role and pay grade. Robertson-Harris played well when entrusted with duties at end or even on occasion at nose tackle. He was an undrafted UTEP linebacker who put on weight and converted to the line, and showed the availability to come off blocks and make plays. Last year the Bears knew he would be pursued if tendered at a lower level of restricted free agency so they tendered him at just over $3 million and kept him around for a year. He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at midseason but now they will almost certainly lose him because plenty of other teams can use a 6-foot-5, 292-pound lineman. He could play end in a 3-4 or end in a 4-3 and also could be a three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3. Robertson-Harris had a very productive Bears career with 7 1/2 sacks and 75 tackles.

Spotrac.com estimates his market value at $8.2 million a year, and they can't afford anything close to that for a backup defensive lineman.

Like Nick Williams last year, this is a player former Bears defensive line coach Jay Rodgers brought along to success, and now he'll leave because he's too good to be a backup for a low price.

Defensive end Brent Urban — Like Robertson-Harris, Urban took to the coaching from Rodgers and went from a Titans castoff to a valued extra edge who could stop the run while occasionally harass a quarterback. His pass rush off the edge as Kirk Cousins tried to run a bootleg pass on fourth down helped earn a victory and ultimately a division title. Urban's 6-7 height made it tough at times for passers to throw outside the numbers. He had three tipped passes in his 25 games, and added 2 1/2 sacks and nine pressures. It's not enough production to make him a highly paid starter somewhere but could be just enough to keep him at a pay rate just over what the Bears can afford for a fifth defensive lineman. This is why they will be looking at the interior defensive line later in the draft.

The hard part? As the Bears watch these defensive linemen depart who were Rodgers' projects, they also know they no longer have Rodgers to work his magic with new ones since he's now working for Brandon Staley and the Chargers.

Safety Deon Bush — After playing on a one-year deal as the third safety, it's possible Bush did enough to draw higher offers from teams seeking depth at the position. He played for $1.4 million last year and failed in an attempt to beat Tashaun Gipson out of a starting spot. Bush made his first career interception in 2020 and has participated on about half of special team snaps over the past four years. He has eight career starts, but just two since his rookie year. At 28 this season and with system knowledge, he'll be a target for retention at a lower cost if the interest isn't there. However, he's likely to find someone looking to pay in the $2 million-plus range for reserve secondary assistance.

Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo — A versatile, 6-5, 235-pound highly athletic reserve performer and special teams ace, Mingo has value to 3-4 teams at edge linebacker as a rusher and 4-3 teams on the outside because of pass coverage abilities. The 2 1/2 sacks he had last year were his most since his rookie season. Because he's a nine-year veteran and is 31 this season, the cost might be too high to retain him, and the Bears have a few other younger players like James Vaughters and Trevis Gipson, who they are counting on to progress at the position in 2021. Paying for $1.05 million last year for what Mingo provided on special teams and the edge was a steal. They wouldn't be in as much Need if Robert Quinn could play the spot the way they hoped when they signed him.

Nose tackle Daniel McCullers — A former Steelers fill-in and massive, veteran nose tackle at 6-7, 352, he'll turn 29 this season and could have a chance to return at a minimum salary after playing for $1.05 million in 2020. If Eddie Goldman returns, the Bears are covered at nose tackle because Goldman and Bilal Nichols now can both play there. It could come down to either keeping Jonathan Jenkins or McCullers at minimum cash and Jenkins has produced more as a backup in Chicago and elsewhere.

Cornerback Artie Burns — Signed for about $1 million after struggling in Pittsburgh, and then tore an ACL early in training camp. There isn't much of a role available for him in Chicago with several younger players now on the depth chart who have gained experience.

Defensive End Mario Edwards — This could be a tough situation but not because of Edwards' lack of ability or production. First, a domestic violence charge was made against him over a situation at the team hotel, and then he received a two-game suspension for next year due to failed performance enhancing drug test. The Bears have occasionally looked the other way on a rare PED test failure. They may not be so forgiving with the violence charge, especially after their experience with the Ray McDonald signing in 2015. Edwards had a strong season after being cut by New Orleans, and had four sacks as a situational pass-rush tackle in the four-man pass rush. The cost in terms of cash and also in controversy might be too high.

Back

Safety Tashaun Gipson — His return depends on how little he'll be willing to play for after proving he was still a viable starter at age 30 last season with a one-year, $1 million deal. He's already been through this process and didn't draw a big deal, so the Bears may be able to retain him at a bargain rate. This would be good because communication in the secondary is so important, and players who have been together a while are better able to do this. Rather than swapping out safeties every year, keeping Gipson another year could improve this. He is more effective playing back in coverage, which presents a bit of a problem because Eddie Jackson is better at this as well.

Safety Sherrick McManis — The longest tenured Bear, he's been here since Lovie Smith's last year in 2012 and keeps coming back as a gunner and backup defensive back at the minimum or close to it. At 34 during next season, it's possible he's done but more likely the Bears get him another low contract and bring him back for another training camp to prove he is still a better special teams player than others. He has led the team in special teams tackles five of the last six years and last year produced the clinching interception on a Hail Mary pass as an extra defensive back in the critical win over the Minnesota Vikings.

NT John Jenkins — Brought back for second stint in Chicago last year because of the opt-out by nose tackle Eddie Goldman, at age 32 this season he'll at least get considered to return as a minimum-pay defensive lineman. Possible line attrition with the rest of their depth could ensure this. More of a classic nose tackle at 327 pounds, they have also used him at end in short-yardage.

S DeAndre Houston-Carson — Like Bush, DHC served as an extra defensive back but  proved he can actually play better in the defense than he displayed in the past with his first career interception and also a fourth-down pass defensed to beat Tom Brady. Houston-Carson played for one year and $1 million last year. It's possible the marketplace could pry him loose from the Bears at age 28, but it's less likely than with the more experienced Bush. DHC also has developed into one of their best special teams players, possibly second only to McManis.

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