As the Bears build their offseason plan in an effort to rediscover the magic of their 99th season and render their centennial follow-up (flop) a distant memory, they have 99 problems to solve but their defense arguably involves only one.
Do they need at least two new starters with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Danny Trevathan impending free agents, and perhaps a third barring a vexing decision on Leonard Floyd’s non-guaranteed $13.2 million price tag? Yep.
Should those first two potential holes be easier to fill than, say, QB2 (with QB1 upside), plug-and-play tight end and at least one new O-lineman? Absolutely.
Not only are strong safety and off-ball linebacker non-premium positions at which rookies and journeymen routinely fill the bill (see: Adrian Amos and Kevin Pierre-Louis, for instance), the Bears already have locked up the ultimate aces in the hole in former All Pro Eddie Jackson and, assuming his personal matters and torn bicep are fully resolved come camp, future Pro Bowler Roquan Smith. They’re the types of talents that can compel Ryan Pace to shop the bargain bin for their sidekicks.
Khalil Mack is obviously that dude, too (and then some), but Pace’s forthcoming OLB moves, while still a “good problem,” are much more complicated. The most expensive defensive player in NFL history, Mack is three years older than Jackson and six years older than Smith, making it more likely his performance pinnacle is upon us, if not already passed.
However, fair or not, another full season with “only” 8.5 sacks and 80 percent of his takeaways coming in the first quarter of the campaign will constitute a disappointment. Frankly, even a statistical repeat of his outrageous 2018 debut with the Bears would be disappointing relative to Mack's immense price tag if it doesn’t culminate in a playoff victory.
Of course, Mack’s somewhat pedestrian second season in Chicago — strictly relative to his own impossible standards — was sabotaged in part by Akiem Hicks’ injury and Floyd’s underwhelming pass rush contributions. Is it Pace’s burden to insulate the team’s best player with a better insurance policy this offseason? Of course it is.
That’s not to say it will be easy.
Imagine being Pace this offseason. He must at least consider pulling the plug on Floyd’s fifth-year 2020 team option and also acquire Mitch Trubisky’s potential successor. Remember, through no fault of his own, Pace already moved on from his first-ever first-round draft choice, injury-riddled former No. 7 overall pick Kevin White. Floyd was Pace’s first foray trading into the top 10 of the draft, and Trubisky’s well-documented draft story includes being Pace’s only selection at the position in five years.
But humility needs to be a prerequisite for a GM before taking the job. If Pace isn’t ready to cut ties with Floyd — and we think that’s probably the most logical course of action — he must be prepared to spend one of his two top-100 draft picks (Nos. 43 and/or 50) on an edge rusher opposite Mack who does more to affect quarterbacks. Even if it means that rookie begins as the Bears’ OLB3, which is currently a vacancy with Aaron Lynch unsigned and unlikely to return.
And if Pace is prepared to move on from Floyd, there are an unusual number of vet alternatives to sign with the recouped cash that have longer track records of pass-rushing success. That shouldn't preclude him from doubling up in the draft. Again, Mack is one week from his 29th birthday and one year from putting a stranglehold on the Bears' cap situation. It's never too early to start thinking about what's next.
Ultimately, the Bears’ precipitous takeaway reduction last season (from 37 to 19) was partially attributable to the decline in havoc created at and behind the line of scrimmage, Mack’s notwithstanding. Chicago plummeted from an 8.1 to 5.6 sack percentage, which illustrates their rarely playing on a lead (unlike in 2018) but also relying too much on the hits of a one-man band in Mack.
The Bears have enviable defensive personnel, including stars at all three levels. But new starter, adding another difference-making edge rusher should be Pace’s top priority — even with a “multiplier” in Mack already here.