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With the start of free agency right around the corner (March 10th), I’m going to be breaking down a few options for the Chicago Bears at every position. I’ve covered both the lines so far which you can read via the links below and will be covering outside linebackers today.
The Bears only have one outside linebacker free agent to decide on and it appears to be a foregone conclusion that Lance Briggs will be leaving town, but as part of this series I will be listing the Bears internal free agents at each position with links to posts I did earlier this off-season on whether the Bears should keep that specific player.
With a new defensive scheme being implemented in 2015 it is difficult to predict what type of free agents the Bears will be targeting at any defensive positions, but based on their coaching hires it seems likely that they will be implementing some type of 3-4 scheme. I’ve chosen the free agent targets below based on the scheme DC Vic Fangio ran with the 49ers from 2011-2014.
Below I will be listing free agent outside linebackers who I think could help the Bears in 2015 and beyond. These aren’t necessarily rankings of the top free agents at each position, but players I think the Bears should target based on scheme fit, salary, and future potential. I’ve broken each position down to four parts: the big ticket signings, starters, young players with starter potential and depth players. At the end of the post, I’ve made my recommendation on which players I think the Bears should target.
Free Agent Breakdown:
Outside Linebacker – Bears Free Agents
Outside Linebacker – Current Situation
The Bears have a number of potential 3-4 OLBs but they are all question marks. Christian Jones seems like a good fit as a pass-rushing 3-4 OLB, but has yet to prove anything except potential. Former 1st round bust Shea McClellin’s draft stock was built on success as an OLB in a 3-4 scheme in college, but that was four years ago. Last year’s free agents prizes, Jared Allen and Willie Young, are both bad fits on paper for the position, but OLB’s in Vic Fangio’s scheme with the 49ers are more like DEs than traditional 3-4 OLBs. Lastly 3rd year players David Bass and Cornelius Washington have the prototype size and athleticism for OLBs in Fangio’s scheme and could be surprise factors in the position battle.
There are plenty of options at OLB currently on the roster but none with NFL experience at the position in a 3-4 scheme. It’s very possible the younger players take well to the position switch or veterans like Allen and Young excel in the new position as Julius Peppers did last year with the Packers. Despite a wealth of options, I think the Bears will look to add talent at the position in the draft and perhaps add depth and experience through free agency. There are certainly plenty of tempting options in this years free agent class at 3-4 OLB.
Outside Linebacker – Free Agent Options
Justin Houston – 26, Chiefs (6’3 | 258): In almost any other season, Houston would have won the defensive player of the year award after his 23 sacks, 56 QB hurry season. Houston’s overall grade of 51.1 from Pro Football Focus almost doubled the grade of the next best player at the position (McPhee, 26.0). Houston may be the best pure edge rusher in the NFL and an ideal fit for Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme.
As tempting as it sounds to add an explosive pass rusher like Houston, he will most likely demand a salary at well above $10M per which would put the Bears in a difficult cap position and restrict them from signing any other decent free agents. The only chance the Bears have of being in the running for Houston is if they end up shedding significant salaries like Tim Jennings, Jermon Bushrod, and Brandon Marshall, which would put them among the teams with the most cap space. It’s basically a pipe dream, as the Chiefs may end up using the franchise tag on Houston, but as of today the possibility is at least worth exploring.
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Brian Orakpo – 28, Redskins (6’3 | 263): One of the best natural pass rushers in the NFL, but has trouble staying healthy with 24 missed games over the last three seasons. In 2014 Orakpo only played 6.5 games before a season ending injury. In 2013 Orakpo showed what he could do when healthy with 11 sacks, 60 tackles, and a 23.7 grade from PFF which was the 4th highest among all 3-4 OLBs.
Orakpo’s disappointing 2014 season could play in the Bears favor by lowering his price tag enough that the Bears could sign Orakpo and still have money left over to improve depth at other thin positions. Orakpo would give the Bears a player with experience at the 3-4 OLB position and also a proven, dynamic edge rusher. When healthy, Orakpo has an elite burst off the edge, sheds blocks well, has shown the ability to anchor against the run, and is decent in short zone coverage. Perhaps a modest base around $6-$7 million with another couple million in incentives would be enough to get the deal done for the Bears. Anything more than that would be too risky given his injury history.