Defensive Line: 7
Key Players: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris
Roster Depth: Brent Urban, Abdullah Anderson, John Jenkins, Trevon McSwain, Lee Autry
I went back and forth between a 7 and an 8 for this one. Akiem Hicks is a monster, assuming he can return to his pre-injury form in 2020. Eddie Goldman is a really good run-stuffing nose tackle, and Roy Robertson-Harris provides some nice juice as a situational pass rusher.
The wild card here is Bilal Nichols, who took a step back last year after a promising rookie season in 2018. If he can step up, this group should be really good. If he doesn’t, then they look a bit more like Hicks and a bunch of situational pieces. Brent Urban and Abdullah Anderson are both fine end of the roster players who won’t get pushed around too badly against the run but don’t offer much as pass rushers.
Edge rushers: 9
Key Players: Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Barkevious Mingo
Roster Depth: Trevis Gipson, Isaiah Irving, James Vaughters, LaCale London, Ledarius Mack
Mack and Quinn are the headliners here, as the duo might be the best pass-rushing tandem in the NFL. Just don’t look too closely at the depth behind them, because it’s ugly. Mingo is a suitable coverage player and run defender, but offers nothing in the way of pass rush. Nobody else has any notable NFL experience.
If Mack and Quinn stay healthy, this is one of the best groups in the NFL. If one (or God forbid both) of them gets hurt, the Bears are in trouble.
Inside linebackers: 7
Key Players: Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Josh Woods
Roster Depth: Rashad Smith, KeAndre Jones
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the starters are really good, but the depth is scary. Trevathan in particular is a really solid, smart player, while Roquan Smith has flashed all-pro ability through two years but needs to be more consistent. Both players ended 2019 on injured reserve and need to stay healthy this year, because the guys fighting for time behind them haven’t done much outside of special teams. Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis, who both played very well for extended stretches in 2019, are gone.
If Trevathan returns to pre-injury form and Smith takes the next step, this could be among the best ILB duos in the NFL. If Smith stays inconsistent and Trevathan starts to show signs of age, or if one or both of them get hurt again, the Bears could be in trouble in the middle of their defense.
Key Players: Kyle Fuller, Jaylon Johnson, Buster Skrine, Kevin Toliver, Artie Burns
Roster Depth: Duke Shelley, Kindle Vildor, Tre Roberson, Sherrick McManis, Michael Joseph, Stephen Denmark, Xavier Crawford
Kyle Fuller had a down year in 2019 but is generally a top 10-15 CB. Buster Skrine is a good nickel back. 2nd round pick Jaylon Johnson is expected to grab the starting CB2 job sooner rather than later, but he’ll have to beat out Kevin Toliver and Artie Burns to do so. That shouldn’t be too difficult, as neither player has impressed much in their NFL careers so far.
If Johnson can step in at an acceptable level fairly quickly, this group is probably more of a 7, but it’s hard to have confidence in them with a question mark at CB2. Depth is something of strength here though, as there are 9 guys (the 5 named above plus Duke Shelley, Kindle Vildor, Tre Roberson, and Sherrick McManis) with a real shot to make the roster.
Key Players: Eddie Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Deon Bush, Jordan Lucas
Roster Depth: DeAndre Houston-Carson
Eddie Jackson is one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL. Tashaun Gipson is a solid player next to him, assuming he can return to health. Deon Bush provides quality depth, while Jordan Lucas has some decent playing experience as well. This is one of the rare spots where the Bears should feel good both about their starters and their depth.
Key Players: Pat O’Donnell, Patrick Scales, Eddy Pineiro
Roster Depth: Ramiz Ahmed
O’Donnell and Scales are both perfectly adequate, but nothing special. They’re pretty much the definition of a 5. Pineiro had a decent debut season last year, but struggled to make kicks from beyond 40 yards, and he’ll be pushed in training camp this year by Ramiz Ahmed. The lack of clarity at kicker – easily the most important specialist role – drops this ranking.
The overall average for all 12 position groups is a 5.3, which fits the Bears’ projected win total of 8.5 fairly well. This is far from a balanced roster, however, as the offense averaged a 3.8, with no group above a 5, while the defense averaged a 7.4, with no group below a 6. Basically, the worst position group on defense is still better than the best position group on offense.
The offense is weird because there aren’t any positions that I expect to be a total dumpster fire (unlike QB, TE, and interior OL ended up being last year), but there also aren’t any positions that I see as clearly strengths. Anthony Miller emerging at WR could change that, as could David Montgomery having a breakout year at RB. Still, the top-end talent on offense is clearly lacking, as only Allen Robinson and Cody Whitehair are clearly high quality players on that side of the ball.
On defense, the lack of depth (especially at edge rusher and ILB) is a real concern, but otherwise they have several clear strengths and no real weaknesses except maybe CB2. That’s how you build a really strong unit, though a few key injuries could change that in a hurry.
Still, I think it’s fair to say the defense has a likely range of outcomes somewhere between great and good, while the offense is hoping to avoid a repeat as a terrible unit, with a realistic best-case scenario as somewhere around average. It’s really hard to win a Super Bowl with an average or worse offense, but teams like the 2015 Broncos have shown that you can ride a dominant defense to a championship. It’s not a likely outcome for the Bears this year, but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility if everything clicks.