Jaquan Brisker not only had the unusual distinction of leading the Chicago Bears as defensive back last season, he also became the first homegrown player to top that category since the middle of the Lovie Smith era.
Brisker’s four sacks were the league’s last passing rush in 2022, when the rookie safety became the first player drafted by the Bears and developed to lead them in sacks since Alex Brown had six in 2008.
During those 13 years, Adewale Ogunleye, Israel Idonije, Julius Peppers, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn took turns at the helm of the pass rush, a testament to how dependent the bears were on free hand and the Merchant Market at a marquee location.
Now General Manager Ryan Poles must go through possible options to ramp up the passport rush, like a shopper heading to the mall the day after Christmas in search of the perfect gift. The bears have essentially admitted that they need help on the defensive end. The good news is that there are plenty of options (and prices) to evaluate in the coming weeks.
“We are aware of our strengths and weaknesses,” said the Pole at the draft weekend. “We will be opportunistic. We still have the flexibility to do what we need to do to improve.”
The Bears did not pick a defensive end in their 10-man draft class. They nabbed three defensive tackles – Gervon Dexter (Round 2), Zacch Pickens (Round 3) and Travis Bell (Round 7) – and the Poles said it was more about how the draft fell than missing one known priority.
There were reports that the bears called towards the end of the first round to estimate the price they would have to pay to move up. If that’s true, it’s possible the Poles have their eye on a small group of defensive ends.
The Bears eventually stayed at No. 53 where they selected Dexter. A run on Edge Rushers began late in the first round when the Cincinnati Bengals selected Myles Murphy in 28th place and ended well before the Bears were selected midway through the second round.
Murphy was the first of six edge rushers selected in a span of 14 picks. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted Nolan Smith in 30th, and the Kansas City Chiefs closed out Round 1 with Felix Anudike-Uzomah. The Seattle Seahawks drafted Derick Hall at number 37, the New Orleans Saints took Isaiah Foskey at number 40, and the Arizona Cardinals got BJ Ojulari at number 41.
Had the Bears retained their original second-round pick (#32), which they traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers with Chase Claypool, they would have been in the best position to get in on the rush for pass rushers. The hope is that Claypool will be a big part of quarterback Justin Fields’ success this season, and by and large, that’s more important to the franchise’s development than a rookie pass rusher. In 32nd place, the Bears could have picked up the seventh rand rusher in the class.
They currently have six defensive ends: DeMarcus Walker, who has signed a three-year, $21 million deal in free agency; former draft picks Dominique Robinson and Trevis Gipson; free agent signee Rasheem Green; and undrafted rookies Jalen Harris and D’Anthony Jones.
Walker projects as a left starting end in base defense, and for now the opposite starting characters are Robinson or Gipson. The Bears may either add a starter here in the near future or go with a designated pass rusher (DPR) that they would likely keep on the sidelines on rundowns.
Most of the options available – up to 10 experienced full-backs – are on the wrong side of 30. There’s probably no “splash” player to add, and Poles probably doesn’t want to make the kind of moves that do would reduce its salary cap flexibility.
Frank Clark, 30 (age from week 1). A cap casualty for the Chiefs, Clark has had 9½ sacks over the past two seasons. The three-time Pro Bowl pick has hit 10 sacks in a season twice in his career. He made $12.3 million last year and probably wants a big payday. Clark was arrested twice for gun charges.
Jadeveon Clowney, 30. 2014 No. 1 Clowney has traveled with four teams over the past five seasons. He never quite reached his draft potential, with just three more than six sacks in nine seasons.
Carlos Dunlap34. The 14-year veteran has 100 career sacks after scoring four in 17 games for the Chiefs last year.
Leonard Floyd, 30. A first-round pick for the Bears in 2016, Floyd’s passing rush took on a new gear when he joined the Los Angeles Rams in 2020. He has had 29 sacks over the past three seasons after totaling 18½ in four years with the Bears. Floyd earned $16.5 million last season and is available because neither team reached their asking price.
Justin Houston34. The 13-year veteran had 9½ sacks for the Baltimore Ravens last year and is another player the Poles know well, having spent the first eight years of his career with the Chiefs.
Melvin Ingram34. After back-to-back down seasons, Ingram had six sacks for the Miami Dolphins last year.
Yannick Ngakoue, 28. Ngakoue has had at least eight sacks each season, including 9½ last year with the Indianapolis Colts. As of 2019, he’s on five teams and bouncing around because he’s a drag against the run. Ngakoue is profiling himself as a DPR and is likely looking for a sizeable payday after inking a two-year, $26 million deal in 2022.
Robert Quinn, 33. A team that believes in the veteran who puts together big seasons in odd-numbered years might be willing to shoot at Quinn, who the Bears traded to the Eagles midseason last year. Quinn had 18½ sacks in 2021, 11½ in 2019 and 8½ in 2017. The problem is he had one sack last season, two in 2020 and 6½ in 2018.
Karl Lawson, 28. He is entering the final year of a contract that will net him $15 million this season. The New York Jets have a variety of edge rushers and Lawson is rumored to be available at a retailer. Considering the contract, a late-round pick could make that possible. Lawson had seven sacks with 24 QB hits last season. He has accumulated a total of 27 sacks over five seasons.
Za’Darius Smith, 31. Smith is rumored to be seeking a new contract — or at least guaranteed money — a year after signing a three-year, $42 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings. Smith’s market was depressed last offseason after suffering a back injury that wiped out almost all of his 2021 season at Green Bay. He had 10 sacks for the Vikings last season, but came up with 8½ in the first seven games. Smith is an intriguing option but having to trade for him and adjust his contract could be a lot.
The schedule for adding a defensive end isn’t pressing. In a perfect world, the Bears would induct a new player into their program during the offseason program so he could be in full swing by the start of training camp.
It’s probably not the season or the time in transition for the Poles to swing big. With two first-round picks in 2024, the Bears can prioritize the pass rush in the next draft, but they need help now.
If bid prices fall, it will be interesting to see what the bears do. A best-case scenario would be for the young tackles to emerge while Robinson is enjoying a breakout season. Ultimately, the Bears need to get out of the cycle of looking for a pass rusher – and they certainly don’t want a defender leading them back into sacks.