In 2022, the Bears defense ranked second to last in the NFL against the rush. Teams ran up and down the field against a porous Bears defense throughout an abysmal 3-14 campaign.
So Bears general manager Ryan Poles set about revamping his defensive line. Defensive tackle was of notable concern. Poles made three big additions at the position that helped the Bears go from nearly last against the run in 2022 to first in the league in 2023.
Here’s a look back at what went well and what didn’t at the defensive tackle position in 2023.
The Bears gave Billings a one-year, $3.7 million contract in free agency. At 6-foot-1, 311 pounds, Billings is a stout defensive tackle who can eat up space in the middle. His purpose in Chicago was to improve that run defense. He’s not a traditional pass rusher, and he often came off the field on third-and-long situations. In his role, though, he was a huge success.
Billings finished his first season with the Bears with 27 total tackles, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. He played well enough to earn a two-year contract extension in early November.
The Bears drafted Dexter 53rd overall after three seasons at Florida. His transition to the NFL was always expected to take time. The Bears’ 4-3 defensive scheme was much different than what the Gators ran at Florida. Dexter needed to work on his first step and he needed repetition. By the second half of the season, Dexter hit his stride. He had a QB hit in seven of the final eight games, including 2.5 sacks.
Starting defensive tackle Justin Jones had career-highs in sacks (4.5) and QB hits (17). Jones was one of the first free agent additions Poles made in 2022 when he became the GM.
As noted, Dexter’s start to the season was a bit slow. He hit the quarterback just twice over the first nine games of the season.
The Bears also drafted Pickens with the 64th overall pick, the first pick of the third round. Like Dexter, Pickens’ adjustment to the NFL game was expected to take time. Pickens didn’t play as much as Dexter. He generally played anywhere from 20-30% of defensive snaps for the Bears.
Pickens finished the year with only half a sack and one tackle for loss. He also forced one fumble. With another offseason under his belt, the Bears are hopeful that Pickens could contribute more in 2024.
1. Draft night: Many pegged the Bears as a potential landing spot for Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter. Carter was widely considered one of the best defensive players in the draft, but he faced off-the-field questions.
The Bears did have the chance to draft Carter – and they took a pass. Carter was available at No. 9 overall. The Bears, instead, traded the ninth pick to the Eagles in exchange for No. 10 and a future fourth-round pick. They drafted offensive tackle Darnell Wright at No. 10.
2. Two picks: Dexter and Pickens kept running into each other throughout the pre-draft process. There already was a budding friendship before the Bears selected them. Taking two defensive tackles in the span of a few picks signaled how big of a priority the position was for Poles. Dexter and Pickens became inseparable once they arrived at Halas Hall.
3. Finish strong: Dexter played his best game in Week 17 when he recorded 1.5 sacks and five combined tackles against the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field. Dexter improved throughout the year and played his best football at the end of the season.
Billings is under contract for two more seasons after signing an extension in November. Dexter and Pickens each have three seasons remaining on their rookie contracts. Jones is set to become a free agent. Michael Dwumfour signed a futures contract in January.
Shaw Local grade: B
Considering where they were a year ago, 2023 was a success. The Bears showed vast improvement against the run, largely thanks to the improvement at defensive tackle [and with the help of some really good additions at linebacker].
Billings will return in his role as the run-stopper, but the Bears need to find a pass-rushing defensive tackle who can dent the pocket from inside. Jones had a nice season with 4.5 sacks in 2023 and could be in line for a raise. He has been an important leader for the Bears over the past two years during this transition phase, but it’s probably time to look for an upgrade.
The best defensive lines in the NFL can rush the passer from the edge and the middle. A dominant defensive tackle can make all the difference. The Bears need to find that if they want to take the next step. They should be in the market to make a splash at defensive tackle in free agency or in the draft.