Looming free agency seemed a likely reason for the loss of Bears defensive depth, if not one starter.
Defensive ends Kevin Pierre-Louis and Brent Urban, nose tackle John Jenkins and starting safety Tashaun Gipson all are heading into free agency for a team already hurt last year by erosion of depth.
If Pro Football Focus is at all accurate in cash assessments like it claims to be with metrics of varying sorts, then the Bears need not worry about losing defensive depth.
In fact, even with a depleted salary cap situation they could rebuild depth and do it the way most people do things when they lack money—they go bargain hunting in free agency to solve their problems.
PFF had initially come out with a list of top free agents and projected their signing amount, and in some cases the teams they land with in 2021. They've since expanded it to the top 200 free agents and there are bargains in this list.
The Bears can find some low-cost veteran players who could be of benefit considering their current roster and cap situation.
LB Kevin Pierre-Louis
The Bears had him in 2019 and he left for Washington in free agency last year for $3 million. PFF projects the eight-year veteran signs for only $2 million somewhere this season. Why bring back a free agent who already left? A better question is why count on Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Josh Woods as backups again when they didn't step up last year?
It was a mistake to let Pierre-Louis get away, but also a minor cap issue. If PFF is right, something at $2-3 million would buy the Bears peace of mind that they wouldn't wind up right back in the same situation they were in against the Saints in the playoffs. They lost Roquan Smith and had to use Manti Te'o, an ill-fitting piece as a downhill type of linebacker who hadn't played a down all season in a game with their defense.
Pace has failed to deliver backup inside linebacker help and a rookie from the draft's late rounds this year is unlikely to be capable of immediately providing it. Pierre-Louis definitely could do it.
Although he can be a liability in run defense, Pierre-Louis can literally cover againt the pass as well as almost any starting linebacker in the entire NFL. Last year PFF gave him a grade in pass coverage better than all inside linebacker except Fred Warner, Eric Kendricks, Mykal Walker and Roquan Smith. They gave him an 83.9 grade against the pass. He played extensively last year, too, on 48% of all Washington defensive snaps. Pierre-Louis had an excellent 91.0 pass coverage grade in 2019 with the Bears in limited play.
Although his run defense was poor with Washington (48.8 grade) as an outside linebacker, Pierre-Louis did rate better while playing inside in the Bears base 3-4 defensive system the previous year. Getting back to a 3-4, where he has defensive linemen covering up blockers, would benefit Pierre-Louis by letting him make plays.
The Bears need better pass defense from inside linebackers. They were hurt badly by this deficiency against the Saints in the playoffs. Danny Trevathan is enough of a liability against the pass that they should actually consider making a move like this simply so they could bring Pierre-Louis on the field in passing situations to play alongside Smith instead of Trevathan.
And Pierre-Louis is supposed to be even cheaper this year than when he was leaving the Bears.
LB Alex Anzalone
If this name sounds familiar but you can't quite put your finger on it, he's the Saints inside linebacker who injured Mitchell Trubisky on his only play from Week 4 until the first Packers game last year.
Anzalone is projected by PFF to be signing a $2 million deal, half of it guaranteed. If you can't have an inside linebacker on the bench good against the pass like Pierre-Louis, then at lease Anzalone is a solid player against the pass. He's been poor against the run but, again, playing in a system not depending on interior defensive linemen to shoot gaps would let him be more aggressive against the run. This would be a poor second option compared to Pierre-Louis, but better than what they went through last year.
DE Brent Urban
They don't need to lose all their defensive line depth. Just because Roy Robertson-Harris has undeniably priced himself out of Chicago doesn't mean Urban has to go. According to PFF, Urban's market price is $1.5 million. That's only half a million more than the Bears paid for him last year. Of course you can pay that much or even a little more to keep a player who has figured out his role in a rotation and may have helped save their season with that pass rush of Kirk Cousins last year on fourth down at Minnesota.
S Tashaun Gipson
The Bears let Ha Ha Clinton-Dix walk last year because they didn't want to pay him $4 million. Instead, they got Tashaun Gipson for $1 million. Now keeping Gipson was initally projected as a problem for the Bears, but they should want to retain him because he worked well in the defense with a 72.0 grade from PFF, their 18th highest grade for a safety. And PFF suggests his market value will be only $2.75 million, including $1.25 million guaranteed. Having a safety who knows how to play in the secondary with Eddie Jackson and has good communication with all the players is worth the extra $1.75 million this year. It's not much to pay extra for a starter to stay. It would be worthwhile signing Gipson and saving cap space by letting Deon Bush leave in free agency, replacing him with a late draft pick.
CB Mackensie Alexander
Cutting Buster Skrine seems an obvious place to start in getting the salary cap situation resolved. He hasn't been the most effective player, has been picked on at times by taller X-receiver types moving down into the slot and has had six concussions since he has been in the NFL. This includes two concussions last year. Alexander, the former Viking, played slot last year effectively for Cincinnati and is projected as a bargain in free agency. He was ranked in the top 100 available free agents by PFF but they projected he'd be available for $6 million over two years. There could be a problem with this projection. Spotrac.com estimates his market value at $8.4 million a year. So, if available closer to the $3 million average annual payment he would be a worthwhile investment, especially considering Skrine was going to take up $5 million of this year's cap.
CB K'Waun Williams
He has been called by PFF the best available slot cornerback for the Bears but he might cost a little too much at $4 million average projected. He had a solid 81.9 passer rating against last year and would be an upgrade over Skrine but this still needs to be a bargain acquisition or they can't retain depth.