The Chicago Bears’ void at the outside linebacker spot has been well documented. As currently constructed, the roster lacks any capable pass-rushing options opposite Leonard Floyd.
Names like Isaiah Irving, Howard Jones, Sam Acho and rookie Kylie Fitts continue to get opportunities. They are yet to seize the starting job or show the ability to rush the passer consistently. With Floyd’s hand injury possibly limiting him, it would help to have a bit more skill at the other outside linebacker spot.
Most Bears fans would welcome a trade for linebacker Khalil Mack, but that appears to be a pipedream. Understandably, the Oakland Raiders aren’t willing to easily part with an elite pass rusher.
Option B would be finding a young athletic edge-rusher with upside. If general manager Ryan Pace decides to explore the trade market or free agency, Denver Broncos linebacker Shane Ray and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. are intriguing names to consider.
Both Ray and Fowler are young and still have some untapped potential. While they possess size, speed and quickness off the edge, something hasn’t clicked upstairs yet. A defensive coordinator like Vic Fangio might be able to unleash havoc with either player.
Aaron Lynch represented a similar type of player when the Bears signed him in March. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old has dealt with a hamstring injury throughout camp and has yet to take the field in preseason. His unavailability puts his roster spot in jeopardy.
If Pace decides to explore Ray or Fowler, here is what to consider.
The Bears got a close look at Ray during joint practices with the Broncos last week. The 25-year-old outside linebacker came into the league with plenty of promise, possessing plenty of speed and power for his size.
Despite being a first-round pick in 2015, he wasn’t a prominent contributor off the bat. That mostly was due to Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware manning both edge-rushing spots. Both players were key catalysts on a historically great unit, which lead the team to a Super Bowl championship that season.
Ray still was able to see the field in spot duty and finished the year with four sacks. He flashed more as a consistent contributor in 2016, finishing the season with eight sacks, 48 tackles, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a defensive touchdown.
However, Ray dealt with a nagging wrist injury last year that sidelined him through the first two months of the season. He registered just one sack and 16 tackles in an eight-game stretch before ending up back on injured reserve in mid-December.
Shortly before having another wrist surgery in June, the Broncos had declined Ray’s fifth-year option. Given his health and low production, now might be a good time to buy low on the young pass-rusher.
He could benefit from a change of scenery. There’s no doubt his raw skills and size fit the profile of an outside linebacker in Fangio’s 3-4 defense. Under the right tutelage, he could be a more dominant outside linebacker. However, it’s equally likely that he continues at a below-average pace.
Does that gamble warrant giving up draft equity? It depends.
If the Broncos are looking for a fourth- or fifth-round pick, the Bears should hang up the phone immediately. But for a sixth-round pick or conditional fifth-rounder? That might be worth considering.
There is a chance Ray could hit the free agent market when the preseason wraps up. Veteran Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb appear to have the starting edge-rusher spots locked down, and Shaquil Barrett is still an option for them in terms of depth. If Ray finds his way on the open market, the Bears would be smart to give him a call.
Like Ray, Fowler was highly touted coming into the 2015 draft. The Jaguars selected the Florida standout with the third overall pick that year, but he missed his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL on the first day of mini-camp.
Since making his debut in 2016, Fowler has been relegated to a backup defensive end for all but one start in two seasons. Some of that has to do with the acquisition of Calais Campbell in 2017 and the emergence of 2016 third-rounder Yannick Ngakoue.
However, Fowler still has been productive in limited action. He managed to tally four sacks, five pass deflections and 32 tackles in his first full season. Last year, he racked up 8 sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 21 tackles and a defensive touchdown in spot duty.
So why did the Jaguars decline his fifth-year option? Despite the production and age (he turned 24 on Aug. 3), the plethora of defensive linemen on Jacksonville’s roster makes it difficult to justify a $14.2 million price tag for a reserve. There also are some noteworthy red flags.
Fowler was arrested for battery in 2017 and sentenced to one-year probation and community service in March, leading to a suspension in week one. He also was involved in a training camp altercation earlier this month, which earned him a week-long suspension from the Jaguars.
With growing concern over his personality and plenty of D-line depth, trade rumors have surfaced the last couple days. Should the Bears consider kicking the tires on Fowler?
Coming out of school, many saw him as a prototypical outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. With that and his youth in mind, he’s a very intriguing option to have opposite Floyd. Even more so than Ray.
If the cost is a low draft pick, the Bears could be willing to roll the dice given the current hole on the edge. But if the Jaguars are asking for a third- or fourth-round pick, the juice might not be worth the squeeze.