The Bears locked up one of the top free agent defensive ends yesterday in Lamarr Houston, but still have a glaring hole at the other defensive end position. There are a few options on the current roster, David Bass (1 sack), Cheta Ozougwu (1 sack), or Cornelius Washington (10 snaps), but those guys don’t exactly inspire fear in opposing QBs. None of those players has proven they can be a productive NFL player and the off-season would be considered a failure if one of them is the opening day starter across from Houston.
The Bears could attempt to find a starting caliber DE in the draft, but that is a risky proposition considering the draft is thin at 4-3 DEs and rookies generally need at least half a season to adjust to the speed of the NFL game. Though a high pick like Kony Ealy or Stephen Tuitt may be able to step in and start right away, the Bears would be better off having a veteran in place in case the rookie isn’t ready and ideally any rookie DE would be used as a rotational player until they prove they can handle the increased speed and strength of the pro game. If the Bears fail to sign another DE then the draft will have to do, but we are only two days into the free agency season so there is still plenty of time. Here are a few players the Bears could still target for the other starting DE position:
Jared Allen (31): I’ve already covered the rumors about Allen coming to the Bears, but that rumor looks less viable today. It was rumored to be between the Bears and Seahawks for Allen’s services, but Allen said today that he is unhappy with the offers he has received so far and is willing to retire if he doesn’t get what he considers fair value. DE DeMarcus Ware just got a $10M per year deal with the Broncos and Allen has been more productive than Ware over the last 3 seasons. If Allen is looking for $10M per, then he might as well just retire because I don’t see the Bears taking on that type of contract for an older player after just cutting Julius Pepper’s massive contract. Some other team with more salary cap room might get desperate and give Allen that much money, but it won’t be the Bears. If Allen is just posturing and his demands become more reasonable, then the Bears should get back in the picture as Allen is the best pass rusher still on the market.
Justin Tuck (31): Had a very quiet 12 sacks last year since 9 of them came in the last five weeks of the season when the Giants were already out of contention. There were rumors that Tuck was playing hurt early in 2013, so that may have limited his effectiveness or he could just have lost a step or two to father time. Either way, Tuck is excellent vs the run and has had double-digit sack totals in three of the last four years. His only contract offer so far is supposedly for $3M per year which he deemed too low for him to leave the Giants. I think it would be worth it for the Bears to up that by a million or so with another million in incentives to bring Tuck on board for a 2-3 yr deal.
Anthony Spencer (30): Was a stud in 2012 with 11 sacks and the top grade of all 3-4 OLBs from Pro Football Focus. Spencer got hurt (knee) in the first game of 2013 and missed the rest of the season. He has had a couple of surgeries on his knee since then and it is unknown how explosive he will be once recovered. The uncertainty over his injury could drive his price down enough for the Bears to be interested. Spencer has been a 3-4 OLB for most of his career, but at just under 270 pounds Spencer could theoretically play DE in a 4-3. It would be a risky signing due to his injury and position change, but the Bears need to be creative without as much cap room as most other teams in the league.
Willie Young (28): His 4 sacks in 2013 might not excite Bears fans, but they don’t tell the whole story of how productive Young was an edge rusher last season. He finished third in the league with 48 QB hurries, behind only Greg Hardy and Cameron Wake. Young might demand as much as $5M per year, so it could be a stretch to fit him in under the cap. For the 2013 season, Young graded almost equally against the run and pass, so he’s not just an edge rusher but a well-rounded DE who can stay on the field all three downs.
Shaun Phillips (32): He’s old, but had 13 sacks last year, was strong against the run and ranked as PFF’s 16th best 4-3 defensive end last season. Phillips isn’t a long-term solution for the Bears, but could provide at least a year of solid play while the Bears develop a young pass rusher from this year’s draft.
Jason Babin (33): Looks like he lost a step or three since his 18 sack season in 2011, but still finished 2013 with 8 sacks for the 2nd year in a row and increased his QBH to 50 (17 hits, 33 hurries), so Babin is still producing above average pass rush stats off the edge. Babin did have his worst season of his 12-year career against the run last year, but he could be used primarily as a DE on passing downs. The Bears should be able to sign Babin for $3M or less, since it doesn’t seem like he is getting much attention on the free agent market.
Robert Ayers (28): A former 1st round pick, Ayers has generally been considered a bust due to lack of production, but had his best season in 2013 so there are signs that he is figuring it out. Ayers only had 5 sacks last year, but was the 9th best DE against the run according to PFF. I’m not sure another run stopping DE fits what the Bears need across from Houston, but Ayers is an upgrade over the Bass / Ozougwu option.
Julius Peppers (34): It’s a long-shot that Peppers would come back to the Bears for less money after they released him. It’s probably the first time in his life that he has been cut from anything, so there may be some sour grapes. Depending on what the market looks like for a 34-year-old DE who disappeared for long stretches last year, the Bears may be his best option. I think Peppers has 1-2 more good years left, especially if he is surrounded by more talent than he was last year.