Regardless of what additions are made on the offensive side of the ball this offseason, the Bears will be a team that will be defined by their defense.
They had a great 2019 that seemed worse because of their historic 2018 performance. This was mostly due to regression — since their 2018 performance was unsustainable — but injuries also played a role.
When Akiem Hicks went down last season, so did their pass rush. Teams were able to key on Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd, and others were not able to take advantage of one-on-one situations to create pressure.
The Bears can save over $13 million by moving on from Floyd, and even if they don’t release him, they need more pass rush in 2020, as well as a replacement for Floyd in 2021 since signing him to an extension, does not seem likely.
Overall, this is a down edge rusher class outside Chase Young, who will be long gone by the time the Bears are on the clock. While they might not get an immediate full-time starter, there are some intriguing developmental options who could serve as pass rush specialists in Year 1 before taking on a larger role in 2021.
The combine is especially important for edge rushers because it is a position where average athletes, no matter how sound their technique is, do not usually dominate at the NFL level. Sure they can be solid rotational players, but if you’re looking for a starter opposite Khalil Mack, you need to find someone with the athleticism to win one on ones.
Jonathan Greenard (Florida)
Greenard started his collegiate career at Louisville before a wrist injury ended his junior season and he transferred to Florida as a graduate transfer. He responded by setting career highs in tackles (53), tackles for loss (16), sacks (10), pass deflections (4) and fumbles forced (3).
Greenard wins with a lightning-quick first step and advanced hand usage. His explosiveness allows him to exploit the inside shoulder of tackles. He has also shown a good spin move when rushing the passer that he could use more often. But overall he is going to win due to violent hands and his quick feet.
He really excels as a run defender, which makes him a logical replacement for Floyd. He can win here in a variety of ways. He can shoot a gap and disrupt in the backfield. He can use his heavy hands and lateral agility to sidestep defenders and shed blocks. And he is equally adept at setting the edge with his length, allowing the linebackers to make the play, or he can stack and shed to make the tackle himself. This will be his calling card early on in his career while he continues to develop his pass rush counters.
Despite his initial explosiveness, his overall athleticism is only average and he often sputters out at the top of the arc and doesn’t have the bend to threaten the edge. A lot of sack production came on unblocked reps.
At the combine, I really want to see how he performs in the 3-cone drill. The 3-cone might be the most valuable test at the combine for edge rushers because it shows how well they can turn a corner and change direction. These two traits directly lead to sacks in the NFL.
Greenard’s lack of elite athleticism limits his ultimate ceiling, but if you are looking for a solid prospect who can make an immediate impact, Greenard would be your guy.
Julian Okwara (Notre Dame)
If the Bears want a more dynamic player with a significantly higher ceiling, then Okwara could be the guy.
Okwara is an athletic freak, and if he dominates the combine like I think he will, he might test his way out of the Bears’ range. As it stands now he is solidly in the early to mid-second-round range for me.
His combination of speed and length make him a threat on the edge. He doesn’t have the dominant stats of some of the other prospects in this draft, with only 13 sacks over the last two seasons. However, his 19.1 percent pressure rate is the highest in the draft class since 2018, and that is 2.5 percent above consensus top talent in the draft Young.
Okwara wins not only with his elite athleticism but with his length. His long arms allow him to gain leverage on offensive tackles and get underneath their pads. He is one of the better prospects at converting his speed to power to bull rush offensive linemen.
His athleticism and flexibility allow him to threaten the corner and flatten out at the top of the arc much more effectively than a prospect like Greenard. You should see this ability reflected in his 3-cone drill, which I suspect will be at or near the top of the class.
Okwara is far from a perfect prospect. He is pretty much nonexistent as a run defender, consistently getting pushed off his spot. His long limbs and athletic frame suggest he can improve in this area as well as add some weight to his frame without sacrificing athleticism.
As a pass rusher, he is wildly inconsistent. He will dominate for stretches and then disappear for even longer. This is because he relies too much on his athleticism and has not developed a pass rush counter to work off of his long arm/bull rush go-to move.
He would be a perfect third rusher for the Bears if they keep Floyd. He could be a situational pass rusher right away in Year 1 while adding weight and focusing on his technique before taking over for Floyd in Year 2. It could be a huge payoff for the Bears as Okwara has the potential to be a double-digit-sack guy after a few years of development.
Most to Prove
Bradlee Anae (Utah)
There is so much to like in Anae’s game. He’s a tactician who understands the nuance of the position. His hand usage is violent and advanced. Maybe the most advanced in the class. He’s got a non-stop motor, which will certainly endear him to coaches and general managers. He’s strong at the point of attack and has the potential to be a reliable run stopper.
The issue with Anae, and what he needs to prove at the combine, is his athleticism. He doesn’t have the quickest first step and a lot of his rushes stall out because he doesn’t have the athleticism to compete against NFL level tackles.
Anae stuffed the staff sheet in 2019 with 13 sacks. However, if you dig deeper, he accumulated those sacks with only a 13.8 percent pressure rate. That combined with his lack of athleticism concerns me as I am not sure how well his game translates to the NFL level.
If there is a prospect in this draft who can overcome a lack of athleticism my money is on Anae. He simply does too many things well to completely dismiss. He has a third-round grade for me, so without a third-rounder, it would be difficult for me to get excited about him if the Bears select him without trading down.
Alex Highsmith (Charlotte)
And now we get to my favorite edge prospect for the Bears. He’s flying under the radar and could easily be in the “sleepers” section of this article for a couple of reasons. Allow me to debunk those for a moment.
First he played at a small school and performed against lesser talent. While I cannot debunk the school he played at, I can tell you to go watch the tape he put together against national champion participant Clemson. He was disruptive the entire game and finished with both a sack — he could have easily had more — and a tackle for loss. He also had off the charts production with 75 tackles, 15 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss on the year. That type of production in any Division I conference is absurd.
Secondly, he never had more than three sacks in a season before this year. This is true, but there is a very simple reason for this. Charlotte’s defensive scheme changed. In 2018, Highsmith was lined up as a 5-technique defensive lineman despite only being 247 pounds (and still managed 18.5 tackles for loss). In 2019, he was allowed to rush off the edge — where he will be playing in the pros — and exploded for an incredible senior year.
He can prove a lot of people wrong at the combine in the athletic testing and weigh-ins. He won’t be the most athletic prospect in Indianapolis although he should hold his own. I expect him to be above average in most athletic testing. He already passed the first test at the East-West Shrine Bowl, where he measured 6-foot-3, 247 pounds and 33 ⅛ inch arms, putting to rest any concerns over his size.
Trevis Gipson (Tulsa)
Gipson might be rising out of the sleeper category, but he is still a Day 3 prospect to keep an eye on. He is very raw as a prospect but has the athleticism, strength and flexibility to be a future asset to a team.
I love the violence in Gipson’s game. He doesn’t always have great timing or placement with his hands, but when he does, he can overpower offensive linemen. He needs to learn how to do this consistently as well as keep his lower and upper body in sync. If he can put it all together, he has more potential than a lot of prospects that will be drafted ahead of him.
If the Bears do draft him, do not expect much in 2020 even in a situational role. He needs a year or two to really put things all together. He might be too valuable to stash on a practice squad, but don’t be surprised if a mysterious injury lands him on IR at the end of the preseason just like what the Bears did with Roy Robertson-Harris a few years ago.
He should do well at the combine but that probably won’t move him up draft boards too much. It’s easy to see his athleticism on tape. Despite what happens, he will still most likely be drafted on Day 3.
LaDarius Hamilton (North Texas)
I still have to do more research on Hamilton as there is not a lot of tape out there on the small-school star. But from what little we have it’s easy to see why he’s on teams’ radars as a late-round developmental project.
Hamilton has the height, weight, length, speed you want out of an edge player. He was also hindered statistically and stylistically by the scheme at North Texas, where he was often lined up as a 4i or 5 technique defensive linemen. I would love to have seen him get an opportunity to rush from the outside shoulder of tackles more often.
Derek Tuszka (North Dakota State)
Tuszka is another guy I admittedly have to do more research on. And the combine will be the first step. From what I have seen he has enough athleticism to warrant a look late in the draft. I want to see him perform well at the combine to confirm that. If he does not perform well at the combine, then I can probably write him off.
Tuska has good size at 6-foot-5 with enough length to add some weight to his 245-pound frame. He has a non-stop motor, which led to him recording career highs in tackles for loss (15.5) and sacks (10.5). For his efforts, he was voted Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Fastest 40-yard dash: Julian Okwara (Notre Dame)
Highest Vertical: Terrell Lewis (Alabama)
Most Bench press reps: Anfernee Jennings (Alabama)
Farthest Broad Jump: K’LaVon Chaisson (LSU)
Fastest 3-cone: K’LaVon Chaisson (LSU)
Fastest Shuttle: Terrell Lewis (Alabama)