3. CHICAGO BEARS
Once upon a time, the men in Navy and Orange were known as the Monsters of the Midway mainly for their dominant defenses in the early 1940s. A second generation of “monsters” later emerged in the 1980s under the leadership of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan and his 46 defense.
Bears’ defenses of recent vintage, however, have never come close to measuring up to those legendary units despite the presence of stalwarts such as Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs over the past 10 years.
And while the 2016 Bears don’t project to be a top defense, they began showing marked improvement last year under new coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Chicago is still in the midst of a total rebuild in their transition from a 4-3 to 3-4 scheme, but their upgrades at linebacker in the offseason may propel this group into the upper half of NFL defenses, particularly as a team that can get after the quarterback.
Houston bounced back in a big way from his 2014 ACL tear he incurred during a celebratory sack dance. He hit his stride midway through the season and regained his trademark explosiveness.
Chicago’s comeback player of the year registered seven of his eight sacks between weeks 9 and 16. Houston has the talent to be one of the league’s premiere power rushers who complements his brute force with a variety of pass-rushing maneuvers including his patented swim move and has the awareness to sniff out misdirections and screens.
McPhee was Chicago’s signature free-agent signing going into 2015 and has earned top grades for his willingness to play through constant knee soreness that was so painful that team decision-makers considered placing the former Raven on injured reserve at one point.
The 275-pound veteran put up six sacks despite his physical struggles and gave his new team a glimpse of his extraordinary change-of-direction skills uncommon in a player of his large, boxy dimensions.
McPhee’s ability to explode off the snap and throw blockers off balance with a lethal hip shake gives him a leg up on several of his opponents. Improved health this fall can play a major role in taking Chicago’s defense to new heights.
The third member of the group, Willie Young, is a longtime resident of the NFC North as both a member of the Bears and Lions. The 30-year-old rush specialist can beat blockers with both power and speed along with his ability to reach around his opponents with his 35-inch arms.
Much like Houston, Young was also coming off serious injury the year prior (torn Achilles) and came on like a runaway locomotive late in the year by earning 5.5 of his 6.5 sacks from weeks 11 through 15.
Fangio’s plan to rotate multiple pass rushers on a weekly basis was partially behind Chicago’s decision to trade up ahead of the New York Giants to select Leonard Floyd in the first round.
The six-foot-six rookie has played several positions in the front seven since his days as a high-school star in his native Georgia.
While there’s no denying what the young rusher brings in terms of short-area burst and quick-twitch movement, he remains a raw commodity who lacks the strength needed to get off blocks.
Athletic ability alone will only get a player so far. It will likely take Floyd at least two-to-three seasons to reach his true potential. The opinions are varied on his prospects; Floyd can either be the next Dion Jordan or a future Jason Taylor.
The former is fresh off a Super-Bowl winning season with the Denver Broncos in which he distinguished himself as a mobile run-and-hit striker who led the league’s best defense with 110 tackles after an injury-ridden 2014 that saw the 26-year-old suffer a series of knee fractures and a dislocation.
Freeman shares a similar profile as a player who also excels at playing in space while also possessing the instincts to read developing plays on the other side of the ball.
The one-time Indianapolis Colt still considers himself an underdog who went undrafted out of little-known Division III Mary Hardin Baylor and went on to play in the CFL in 2009 before establishing himself as an NFL pro.
Freeman has been nothing if not productive over the past four years, as evidenced by the 297 tackles he’s amassed over that span along with 12 sacks and four interceptions. This was a quality signing that should pay dividends.
Chicago’s depth behind their high-ticket acquisitions is nothing to get excited over. Christian Jones is a six-foot-four athletic marvel, but his lack of instincts and shoddy coverage technique made him a liability in his 13 starts. He had neither a sack, interception, forced fumble nor fumble recovery and was eventually benched.
John Timu took over for Jones and proved to be the more aggressive and decisive player who produced more turnovers in three starts (two fumble recoveries) than Jones had in 13.
Jonathan Anderson had some highlight moments in 2015 (see 11 solo tackles in Monday night win over a depleted Chargers team), but also showed lots of inconsistencies in his game. The undrafted TCU Horned Frog never surpassed four tackles in his other 11 appearances including three as a starter.
The Bears hope they’ve found quality depth in the form of 2016 fourth-round pick Nick Kwiatkowski, who projects as a superb open-field tackler with some burst and agility. His background in the pass-heavy Big 12, though, casts some doubt on his ability to take blockers head on in tight quarters.
Chicago’s front office has put a lot of work in reinforcing its linebacker corps. But though this group can be one to be reckoned with if they get 16 games out of each of their starters, the overall depth still leaves a lot to be desired.
Next: ... And lastly, the Detroit Lions