This season, the Bears’ defense has been among the league’s worst units. Head coach Matt Eberflus’ defense is giving up 25.6 points and 350.5 yards per game. Those numbers are buoyed by a strong start in which they held five of their four of their first six opponents to 20 points or less.
Injuries and trades have caused the unit to crater over the past two months. Starting in Week 8, the Bears are giving up 33.5 points and 375.8 yards per game.
Horrific doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The Bears’ defense has several holes, but the biggest issue is upfront. Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams like to pressure the quarterback without blitzing. In order to do that, their defenses need a three-technique who can disrupt on the interior and an edge rusher who can consistently get home on the outside.
As it stands right now, the Bears have neither.
Since trading Robert Quinn following their Week 7 win over the New England Patriots, the Bears’ defensive line has accounted for one sack, five quarterback hits, and 32 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
The trade of Quinn was supposed to free up opportunities for Trevis Gipson and rookie Dominique Robinson to pop. So far, that has not happened.
Over that same period, Gipson and Robinson have combined for just 11 pressures and two quarterback hits.
Those numbers suggest both Gipson and Robinson are rotational rushers but not edge guys to anchor a defensive line around. That’s fine. Depth is valuable.
But the Bears’ horrid defensive line numbers suggest that should be among the team’s top priorities this offseason.
Given the Bears’ expected salary cap space and high draft pick, there are two moves general manager Ryan Poles could make to take the front four from liability to team strength.
The first move comes in free agency, where the Bears will have upwards of $110 million to spend. Poles’ first call should go to a 6-foot-2, 320-pound game wrecker currently having a career year in Washington.
Daron Payne entered this season without a contract extension from the Washington Commanders. The Commanders already gave Jonathan Allen a lucrative new contract and have to plan for upcoming extensions for Chase Young and Montez Sweat.
Payne appears to be the odd man out of the vaunted Washington front.
But he’s having a monster season in a contract year, regardless.
Payne has always been lauded for his run-stopping ability, but he worked on his agility this offseason and attended Von Miller’s pass rush summit, hoping to gain tips to help him get to the quarterback and increase his value.
Payne has 8.5 sacks, 16 QB hits, and 15 tackles for loss this season. He is one of five players this season with 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 14 QB hits, and 35 tackles.
He has been the ultimate disruptor this season and will be handsomely this offseason. The Commanders reportedly want to keep Payne in Washington, but the defensive tackle market is expected to be robust.
Given Payne’s production, there’s a good chance he eclipses the four-year, $72 million deal Allen signed to stay with the Commanders. He could very well get $20 million a season.
The Bears can afford that and should be willing to pay for a 25-year-old force in the middle of the defensive line.
If Poles can secure Payne in free agency, the Bears can turn their attention to the edge in the 2023 NFL Draft.
If the Bears have the No. 2 overall pick, their best course of action would be to auction it off to the highest bidder, obtain more draft capital, and move down the board.
But there’s a chance no trade materializes, at least not one worth passing up Will Anderson. Draft experts see the Alabama edge rusher as the next Von Miller, a generational pass rusher who can do it all.
Last season, Anderson notched 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss en route to winning the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s best defensive player. Had he been eligible for the 2022 NFL Draft, there’s little doubt he would have been the No. 1 overall pick.
Anderson returned to Alabama for one final season and had a “down year,” only notching 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss while repeating as the Nagurski Award winner.
There are no weaknesses in Anderson’s game. He has the strength to hold up in the run game and the speed and explosiveness to defeat blockers quickly and get to the passer. He was extremely effective on stunts and twists at Alabama but is just as deadly when straight rushing a tackle.
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Last offseason, Poles drafted Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker with both the Bears’ second-round picks, transforming a team weakness into a strength.
He can do the same with the defensive front this offseason. Signing Payne and drafting Anderson would give the Bears elite talent on the interior and the edge. From there, Poles can fill in the rest of the defensive line rotation with suitable pros like Gipson, Robinson, and Justin Jones.
If the Bears want to be able to run the defense the way Eberflus prefers and get home with four, they need dominant players at three-technique and edge rusher. It just happens they’ll have the opportunity to add both this offseason if Poles plays his cards right.