Unlike the offense, there are barely any changes on the Chicago Bears defense heading into 2018. Ten of the 11 starters from 2017 are expected to fill their same roles when the Bears kick off the season Sept. 9 against the Green Bay Packers.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio did a masterful coaching job last year, helping a unit with no Pro-Bowlers finish in the top 10 in most key statistical categories. His unit even finished tied for seventh in sacks despite lacking an elite pass rusher.
With most of the returning starters fully entrenched in their roles, many of the preseason battles on defense are focused on backup roles. However, the outside linebacker spot opposite Leonard Floyd is wide open.
Unless the Raiders foolishly trade Khalil Mack or a young piece like Shane Ray or Dante Fowler Jr. is available, the Bears’ current crop is underwhelming. GM Ryan Pace is probably going to search for veterans who get released or are available on the trade market to fill the the void. Whether he finds one worth being a highly productive contributor remains to be seen.
With the roster as is, here is who we predict makes the 53-man roster on defense.
The Magic Number: 5
The Locks: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard, Bilal Nichols
Key Players on the Bubble: Roy Robertson-Harris, John Jenkins, Cavon Walker, Nick Williams, Abdullah Anderson
Who’s In: Robertson-Harris
Hicks and Goldman are anchors on Fangio’s line, but who fills the other defensive end spot? Bullard likely has the edge now, but Robertson-Harris could cut into his reps very soon. The 6-foot-7, 295-pound lineman was initially on the bubble to start training camp but made plenty of impact plays throughout the preseason, earning him a spot on the 53-man roster. Nichols, one of Ryan Pace’s late-round draft choices in April, could be inactive to start the year. However, his versatility at nose tackle and defensive end could mean more playing time later in the season.
The Magic Number: 5
The Locks: Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Nick Kwiatkowski
Key Players on the Bubble: John Timu, Joel Iyiegbuniwe
Who’s In: Timu, Iyiegbuniwe
In our world, everybody at inside linebacker wins! However, the decision probably comes down to special teams contributions more than defensive depth. Once Smith gets his feet wet, Kwiatkowski will serve as the primary backup for Smith and Trevathan.
In a worst case scenario, Timu could step in the inside linebacker role as well. However, he’s been a very capable special teams player, and that probably is the biggest reason he makes the 53-man roster. As for Iyiegbuniwe, many noted his ability to be a key player on special teams shortly after he was drafted. If he sees the field on defense, that could mean means major injuries are plaguing the Bears in 2018.
The Magic Number: 5
The Locks: Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho
Key Players on the Bubble: Aaron Lynch, Kylie Fitts, Isaiah Irving, Kasim Edebaldi, Elijah Norris, Jonathan Anderson
Who’s In: Lynch, Fitts, Edebaldi
Before you rage against Lynch making the 53-man roster, ask yourself who’s better. Availability is key, and Lynch missed most of training camp and all of preseason with a hamstring injury. But based on the current outside linebacker group, it’s hard to argue that anyone is better suited on pass-rushing downs. Had the other options performed more consistently this preseason, his spot might’ve been in jeopardy. Also, as the Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs wrote Thursday afternoon, Lynch’s signing bonus and familiarity with Fangio’s system give him a major advantage.
As for the other guys, Fitts, Irving and Edebaldi each had moments where they showed the ability to rush the passer effectively. Fitts’ draft status should be enough to earn him a roster spot, and it’s hard to stash someone on the practice squad with his draft status and game tape. Irving and Edebaldi were in a dead heat heading into Thursday’s preseason finale against the Bills. We gave Edebaldi the edge over Irving to make the 53-man roster.
While Edebaldi was carted off with a leg injury in the game, the Bears are saying he only suffered a leg bruise. If it’s more severe than speculated, then Irving would be likely make the roster instead. Regardless, expect Ryan Pace to search for another outside linebacker during the Labor Day weekend. No one outside of Floyd, Acho and maybe Lynch is a sure bet heading into week one.
The Magic Number: 6
The Locks: Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Bryce Callahan, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Sherrick McManis
Key Players on the Bubble: Marcus Cooper, Michael Joseph, Kevin Toliver, Doran Grant, John Franklin III
Who’s In: Grant
The Bears could carry five cornerbacks, but it would be risky from a depth perspective. Callahan is a very solid nickel when healthy, and McManis continues to be a glue guy on special teams. Toliver was a noteworthy UDFA signing this offseason and had a nice start to training camp. However, he turned in a so-so preseason, which is why LeBlanc and Grant got the nod to make the 53-man roster.
Grant is a reluctant choice, and there’s a good chance in our hypothetical world that he’s just a holdover until another option is available. Like outside linebacker, Pace probably will be searching for an upgrade at cornerback over the holiday weekend.
One name not on the roster is Cooper. The Bears released Cooper in the offseason but quickly re-signed him to a one-year deal. His struggles from last season were on display again in the preseason, especially in the second exhibition game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Based on his prove-it contract, cutting bait seems like the best option.
The Magic Number: 4
The Locks: Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos, Deon Bush
Key Players on the Bubble: Deandre Houston-Carson, Deiondre’ Hall, Nick Orr, Jonathan Mincy
Who’s In: Houston-Carson
Houston-Carson is a valuable special teams player, which is why he gets the final safety spot. Hall was billed this offseason as being versatile enough to play both safety and cornerback, and he might have earned the edge over the cornerback Grant in most scenarios. However, the former fourth-round pick is facing a suspension in week one, meaning him staying on the roster would allow the Bears to hold 54 players. If the front office finds a better option at safety in the meantime, Grant and Hall could be a free agents before or after week one of the regular season.