Bears

Big changes likely lie ahead for Chicago Bears’ defensive line

Chicago Bears defensive tackle Justin Jones (93) celebrates after making a tackle against the Cleveland Browns during a preseason game, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, in Cleveland.

LAKE FOREST – There’s going to be changes.

That’s just a fact of life in the NFL. For a player on a 3-14 team that finished dead last among 32 NFL teams, that’s especially true.

For the Bears’ most disappointing position group, the defensive line, it’s the elephant in the room. The Bears produced a league-worst 20 sacks this season. Changes will be made. They have to be.

For the defensive linemen themselves, that fact lingers over the offseason. Nobody’s job is safe. Third-year defensive end Trevis Gipson said his mindset this offseason is to just look at the facts. Everything else is speculation.

“We’re for sure going to get draft picks, we’re for sure going to have to come back to OTAs and we’re for sure going to have to work hard,” Gipson said last week when the Bears cleaned out their lockers. “With those three things being unchanging, I think you just sort of role with the punches on everything that’s outside of that.”

Gipson had somewhat of a breakout season for the Bears in 2021. He recorded seven sacks in just his second year in the league. Expectations were high that he might produce even more in 2022.

Instead, despite starting 10 games and playing in all 17, he totaled just three sacks and four tackles for loss. It was a microcosm of the Bears’ season on the defensive line. Everyone underperformed. Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 defensive scheme works best when the D-line can disrupt the QB with only four rushers.

Try as they might, and they tried all season long, the Bears couldn’t do it with only four pass rushers.

“I would say really we just have to work on our pass rush, work together, four as one,” Gipson said. “We probably need to hang out more outside of football. That’s creating a chemistry, a bond. I think our defense needs to improve as a whole. We’ve got young guys in the back, we’ve got young guys in the front, too.”

The Bears have more available salary cap space than any other team. They hold nine draft picks, including the No. 1 overall pick. General manager Ryan Poles will almost certainly address the defensive line in a major way, whether that’s with big money or with a high draft pick.

For the defense, there was a clear before and after moment during the 2022 season. Everything changed the week that Poles traded away defensive end Robert Quinn and linebacker Roquan Smith in exchange for draft picks.

The Bears were 3-4 when they dealt Quinn, coming off a win over the New England Patriots, arguably their best game of the season.

“The team hasn’t been the same since we traded Roquan and Rob,” defensive tackle Justin Jones said after the season. “We haven’t won since then. That speaks to how much of a leader Roquan and Rob were to our defense. You can see the shift in production, obviously, defensive stat production, sacks, TFLs, pass breakups, and interceptions. It all took a toll. But there’s no replacing that.”

Jones took it upon himself to step into a leadership role after the trades. The players voted him a team captain that week. At just 26 years old, he was thrust into a veteran leadership position. But nobody was going to replace the production those two players left behind.

Jones was one of the few bright spots for Poles’ first free agent class. The 2022 free agent class was full of one-year deals and fliers on players who might over-perform their value. Jones, who signed a two-year deal, finished with three sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 52 combined tackles.

This season was never about wins and losses. But Poles clearly has some work ahead this offseason on the defensive front.

“We just laid the foundation, so it’s tough right now, but at the end of the day, we’re going to get some pieces in here,” Jones said. “We’re going to get some good guys in here, man. We’re gonna do it crazy.”

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for Shaw Media. He also contributes to high school football coverage at Friday Night Drive. Sean has covered various sports at the amateur, college and professional levels since 2012. He joined Shaw Media in 2016.