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Uncertainty Up Front for Bears Defense

Even defensive standouts like Robert Quinn can't be sure about what the future holds for them after the change in systems to a 4-3.

There is a good deal of uncertainty when it comes to Bears in the front seven on defense.

At least it's a great deal less certain than it has been in their 3-4 since the time Khalil Mack arrived in 2018.

Even franchise single-season sack record setter Robert Quinn isn't a certainty on that front because he could be traded.  Justin Jones was just acquired in free agency and is no sure thing, either, as he lacks experience in this type of system. 

The Bears roster countdown to camp continues with players with jersey numbers 90-94 and nothing can be anticipated with this group.

No. 94 DE Robert Quinn

6-foot-4, 245 pounds

The Dossier: The last time Quinn had a big season sacking the quarterback before he had 18 1/2 in 2021 with Chicago was with Dallas in 2019 and he had 11 1/2 sacks, then he followed it by making two sacks in his first Bears season. He was playing in a Bears defensive system new to him then and there was speculation he didn't fit the scheme, but switching to a 4-3 this year shouldn't be a problem for their Pro Bowl edge rusher because he has played some of his best seasons on the right side in a 4-3. His 11 1/2-sack year with the Cowboys came in a similar scheme under Matt Eberflus' friend and former Bears defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.

2022 Prospectus: Although Quinn just turned 32 in May, he remains in good shape and said his refusal to come to voluntary and mandatory offseason practices stemmed from his own methods for getting back into condition to get through the rigors of a season. The biggest issues for the Bears with Quinn will be his run defense and maintaining his health. Although he has 101 career sacks, his run defense grade from the analytical website Pro Football Focus has been in the 50s three of the last four years, and it might be the only thing keeping him from being consistently among the better edge players in their grading system. The other issue with Quinn has nothing to do with him but with the Bears. They could easily get an offer they can't refuse from a team looking for pass rush help and trade Quinn in anticipation of loading up on roster help next year when they have an abundance of cap space. He'd supply gobs of cap space if gone this year or next year.

No. 93 DT Justin Jones

6-3, 309

The Dossier: The former North Carolina State lineman has been a starter the last three seasons for the Los Angeles Chargers and played special teams mostly in 2018 as a rookie third-round choice. He was playing in a different style defense that stressed two-gap responsibilities for linemen and not a single gap as he'll now have with the Bears, but he did line up in the position of a three technique at times like he'll do with the Bears. He made 4 1/2 sacks in his four Chargers seasons and had 12 tackles for loss playing mostly a role where he was occupying blockers.

2022 Prospectus: Last year Jones had a little more freedom to attack and it will carry over to his single-gap responsibilities with the Bears. He made a career-high three sacks then and a career-high 10 quarterback pressures, so there is hope he can be explosive enough to create problems in the backfield for offenses trying to exploit one of the great weaknesses of the Tampa-2 style that the Bears defense will use—stopping the run. Because Jones signed for two years and $12 million, it does not appear the Bears are pinning their future to this acquisition, although he will have the chance to change their minds. It could be the case he is a stop-gap player until they can draft their own dominant three technique or sign a different free agent the way they tried to sign Larry Ogunjobi in 2022 free agency.

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No. 92 LB Caleb Johnson

6-2, 227

The Dossier: A special teams player who beat the odds and got onto the 53-man roster of a veteran team last year as an undrafted free agent from Houston Baptist, which is a Division I FCS team. Johnson played only five snaps on defense last year as a rookie but was in 14 games on special teams and played 239 snaps or 68% of special teams plays. He finished with nine tackles, four solo, and recovered a fumble against Cleveland. Eight of his tackles were on special teams.

2022 Prospectus: Johnson's 40 time coming out of Houston Baptist wasn't great at 4.73 seconds but he had a 38-inch vertical leap and as a result of that and his height it's possible the Bears will give him a good look at one of the three linebacker spots as a potential starter at camp. Some of the veterans they have signed are unimpressive or a little older so it wouldn't be a shock if he won the strong side spot, but probably is unlikely and his role would be as a special teams player if he made the team.

No. 91 DE Dominique Robinson

6-4, 249

The Dossier: Drafted 174th overall in Round 5 out of Miami of Ohio, Robinson was first a quarterback in college, then a wide receiver and two years ago switched sides to try defensive end. He had a decent amount of success and proved enough athletically to get NFL teams interested. He made 6 1/2 sacks in two seasons, including 4 1/2 last year, and played 15 games total on defense in college. He also had 11 tackles for loss, including eight last year. He had played in 11 games as a receiver and made 27 receptions for 452 yards and four touchdowns.

2022 Prospectus: For a fifth-round rookie, Robinson received a great benefit thanks to Robert Quinn and Al-Quadin Muhammad missing all the offseason work on the field. It meant Robinson played all spring with starters, although, of course, it was not padded and with little contact. This will be the big question for a 249-pound rookie who was a receiver until 2020—can he survive 320-pound tackles bearing down on him in the running game and be quick enough to evade blockers? Because the Bears have Quinn, Muhammad and Trevis Gipson, there is almost no pressure on Robinson to produce right away and he'll be expected to try and fit in as a rotational player with the second team. He won't have a free pass there, by any means. Charles Snowden has been with the team's practice squad for a year as an edge rusher and might challenge him for that fourth edge rusher position. There were comparisons made of Robinson to Mark Anderson, a Bears fifth-round rookie in 2006 who made a huge difference as a rotational edge pass rusher with 12 sacks but that's really a reach. Anderson was from Alabama and the SEC. Robinson is a MAC player who was a wide receiver for two years.

No. 90 DT Angelo Blackson

6-4, 315

The Dossier: Blackson is with his fourth team and in seven NFL seasons he hasn't played for one running a 4-3 base defense. The Titans, Texans and 2020 Cardinals all were 3-4 defenses and the Bears last year were, too. So it would seem he is a two-gap player in a one-gap system, but at Blackson's size and with his quickness it's possible he could make the conversion and play the nose tackle spot in the 4-3. He'd be in a gap or shading the center and his primary goal is to get on the center first to prevent double teams from happening to the three technique at tackle. And if he can make the play, he will. Blackson displayed an ability to make plays last year as a sub at defensive end in the 3-4. He matched a career high with 2 1/2 sacks, had a career-high nine quarterback hits and had three tacles for lossto go with a career-high 43 tackles. It was by far his career best. Before that he had a high of just 24 tackles. Due partly to Akiem Hicks' injuries and illness, Blackson had more playing time than ever in his career with 583 plays, 32 more than in his previous high with the Cardinals in 2020. The quickness/strength factors will be a key to see if he can get centers and control them before they are helping the guard.

2022 Prospectus: It could be a sign the Bears need depth at tackle, which they do, but also that they are unsure of Blackson's effectiveness in a single-gap defense as they acquired former Bear Mike Pennel for nose tackle just as minicamp was to begin. So Blackson's spot as both a starter and a backup are anything but certain. That's because there is also 2020 seventh-round pick Khyiris Tonga battling at the nose. Expecting the Bears to keep a third veteran nose tackle might be much. So Blackson could be in for the roster battle of his career.

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