Bears 2016 Free Agent Options: Defensive Line

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /
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Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

The Bears should have over $50 million in cap room this off-season, which could give them the ability to sign a couple potential play-makers. I’m not advocating free agency as the answer to fixing the 2016 version of the team because I still think they are a couple of good drafts away from being a consistent contender, but the Bears could add a couple of impact pieces if they are smart with their cap space.

Ideally free agency is used to add complementary players around a team’s drafted core. Obviously the Bears are far from an ideal situation, but they had some success in free agency last off-season with Pernell McPhee (before he got hurt at least) and also some useful pieces like CB Tracy Porter, C Will Montgomery (again before injury), and DE Jarvis Jenkins.

Of course, historically most free agent signings don’t work out as planned. There is usually a reason that teams let players go and often teams pay a high price before figuring out why. The Bears saw a bit of that last season with S Antrel Rolle (3 yrs / $11.25M), CB Alan Ball (1 yr / $3M), and WR Eddie Royal (3 yrs / $15M) all providing less than their expected production.

Contending teams aren’t built by spending money on free agency; they are built by years of good drafting and player development occasionally supplemented by smart free agent additions. There are exceptions, but that’s the way teams like the Packers, Patriots, and Seahawks continue to be competitive every year. An elite QB also helps…

I’ve already covered the Bears free agent options at QB and will be switching between offense and defense but will eventually cover every position before free agency starts. I’ll also be posting Bears position previews and draft rankings for every position.

Bears DL Position Preview

Bears Potential D-line Targets

*The list below isn’t a pure ranking as I’ve left off players that I don’t see any chance of the Bears signing (Vernon, Hardy) or hitting the market (Wilkerson). I’ve broke the list down into three parts: top-tier (play-makers), mid-tier (starting caliber), and bottom tier (potential bargains).


DE Malik Jackson, Broncos – 2015 was his first full season as a starter and the former 5th round pick in 2012 excelled. Jackson finished 4th among 3-4 DEs in QB pressures, behind only J.J. Watt, Mohammed Wilkerson, and Fletcher Cox. He continued his strong play in the playoffs, likely boosting his price tag.

It took Jackson a few years to build the strength necessary to hold up against the run, but he was stout last season with 46 tackles (8 for loss) as a 3-4 DE in the Broncos scheme. Jackson has also shown the ability to rush the passer since his six sacks as a rookie. He had 5.5 last year including a game clincher against the Chiefs and one for a safety. At only 25 years old with a year as a successful starter in the #1 defense in the league, not many free agents have the potential upside that Jackson does.

I’m sure the Broncos will try to keep Jackson if they can, but they have quite a few high profile free agents, not a lot of cap room, and just re-signed fellow DE Derek Wolfe to a 4-yr, $36.7M extension. It is rumored that the Broncos would have to choose between Wolfe and Jackson this off-season and if that’s true, it appears they made their choice. It may take a slight overpay by the Bears to secure Jackson’s services, but his familiarity with John Fox should help. With the Bears needing upgrades at both DE positions, Jackson should be a priority target.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

DE Cedric Thornton, Eagles – After averaging close to 60 tackles per year in 2012 & 13, Thornton was much less effective last season due to both hand and ankle injuries that limited his playing time and production. In the two years before last Thornton started every game and was one of the best run stuffing DEs in the league.

At only 27 years old, Thornton should have a few years of good football left and could provide a run-stopping anchor on the Bears d-line and free up the OLB on his side to make more plays. Thornton won’t be cheap, but a sub-par 2015 season could lower the price a little and the Bears really need some legitimate NFL talent on the d-line.

NT Damon Harrison, Jets – Powerful run-stuffing nose tackle who is unlikely to hit the free agent market. Nose tackle is not the Bears most glaring need either with Eddie Goldman showing real potential as a rookie. The Bears have a lot of more pressing needs, but a player as good as Harrison deserves at least a phone call.

The 27-year-old NT has started 48 straight games for the Jets and last season had the best overall run stopping grade from Pro Football Focus. Like I said, the Bears are probably better off spending their money on positions of greater need, but a Harrison / Goldman combo could be special.