No position on the Bears benefited as much from an influx of fresh talent as defensive end.
When the Bears traded for Washington Commanders defensive end Montez Sweat, it changed the trajectory of the entire defense. The Bears gave up a second-round pick in exchange for Sweat, then signed him to a four-year, $98 million contract that will keep him in Chicago for the foreseeable future.
Before Sweat came along, things were not looking good for the Bears at the defensive end position. Here’s a look back on what went well and what didn’t at defensive end in 2023.
In nine games with the Bears, Sweat had six sacks. Including his time with the Commanders, he totaled 12.5 sacks on the season, marking a career high. He became the first player ever to lead two franchises in sacks during the same season. He earned his first Pro Bowl appearance.
When Sweat arrived, the Bears saw a huge surge in takeaways. The Bears had 19 takeaways over the nine games following his arrival. The improved pass rush led to less time for opposing quarterbacks and more hurried throws.
When you add players like that, all of a sudden I think you could kind of see everyone had a little more swagger to them. I think it affected the back end. You saw interceptions go up. You saw us win more games.”— Ryan Poles, Bears general manager
“When you add players like that, all of a sudden I think you could kind of see everyone had a little more swagger to them,” general manager Ryan Poles said. “I think it affected the back end. You saw interceptions go up. You saw us win more games.”
Before Sweat, the Bears’ biggest addition at defensive end came in August, when they added pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue on a one-year, $10 million free agent contract. Ngakoue managed only two sacks in the first eight games of the season before the Sweat trade. A December ankle injury ended Ngakoue’s season four games early. He finished with only four sacks – a career low.
Veteran DeMarcus Walker, a March free agent addition, finished with only 3.5 sacks. He was relegated to a backup role directly after the Sweat trade but stepped back into a starting spot when Ngakoue went down.
Second-year defensive end Dominique Robinson, a fifth-round draft pick in 2022, had a disappointing season. He totaled only half a sack and one tackle for loss. Despite being healthy, he was inactive for six games during the middle portion of the season.
1. Trade deadline: Nobody was quite certain what the Bears would do at the trade deadline. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson stole the narrative when reports emerged that the Bears allowed him to seek a trade partner. No trade happened, though. Instead, the Bears were a surprise buyer at the deadline. They gave up a second-round pick, which turned out to be the 40th overall pick, for Sweat. It marked the second year in a row that Poles traded the Bears’ second-round pick at the deadline.
2. Tez effect: No game exemplified the magnitude of Sweat’s addition more than his 2.5-sack performance against Cleveland in mid-December. Sweat forced a fumble in that game, and the Bears’ defense dominated for the first 3 1/2 quarters. It was Sweat’s fourth consecutive game with at least one sack. Unfortunately, the Bears blew a 10-point lead late in the game.
3. Week 18: After feel-good vibes during the second half of the season, Week 18 brought the Bears back to reality. Their defense hit Packers quarterback Jordan Love only one time. He completed 27 of 32 passes, and the Packers reminded the Bears who owns this rivalry. It was the perfect reminder that, even with the addition of Sweat, the Bears still have more work to do on the defensive line.
Sweat is under contract for four more seasons and will be the highest-paid player on the team with a $25 million price tag. Walker is under contract for two more seasons. Ngakoue is set to be a free agent. Robinson has two years remaining on his contract. Defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Daniel Hardy signed futures contracts with the Bears.
Shaw Local grade: C+
The first eight games of the year were abysmal. Sweat’s addition changed everything. He earns an A for how he performed during the final nine games. The Bears still need to find additional help on the edge.
The Bears need a quality second defensive end in the starting lineup to make it harder for offenses to double-team Sweat. There are several top names who could hit free agency, but it seems more likely that the Bears will look for a conservative option – like they did last year with Ngakoue. A veteran on a one-year deal could help this team now but not hurt the team’s flexibility in the future.
The Bears also could look for a defensive end in the draft. Nothing is off the table. They could draft an edge rusher as high as their No. 9 overall pick, or take one later on.
Finding another edge rusher is one of a handful of top priorities for this team in 2024.