By Chris Emma–
(CBS) Ryan Pace will be a busy man in the coming months — that much is clear.
“We have an opportunity to improve our team through free agency and the draft,” Pace said in early January. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and I know that. We’re going to take advantage of the position that we’re in.”
How the third-year Bears general manager will operate in upgrading his roster is uncertain, with many options on the table. Their positions of need are known — everything in the secondary, a receiver, a left tackle and possibly even a quarterback.
But in ensuring this roster is ready to contend in 2017, the Bears will be seeking another defensive end to bolster their improved defensive front.
The Bears seem to have the framework in place for a good front seven, with Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman working well as a tandem up front, Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee and Willie Young as the rushers off the edge and the interior grouping of Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman and Nick Kwiatkoski.
Pace knows well what another powerful rusher at the 5-technique could do for his defense, one which has made great strides since Vic Fangio took over as coordinator two years ago. But that defensive identity needs one more man up front.
In searching for that one more end, the Bears will have options.
Before the debates of Jonathan Allen begin, the Bears can answer by moving for 30-year-old Calais Campbell in free agency. Campbell is set to be one of the top prizes on the open market, a monstrous 6-foot-8, 300-pound prototype for the position.
Campbell has been consistent in his eight seasons as a starter in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense, averaging just over seven sacks per season.
The Bears are set to move into free agency with what Pace referred to as top-five cap space, but other priorities are in place. Should the Chiefs decline, safety Eric Berry would also be a coveted player for the Bears, as would Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye. Upgrading the secondary is more essential for Pace.
Should the Bears choose to sign Campbell, they could enter the NFL Draft with a more clear picture.
The quarterback position could come into play if the Bears part ways with Jay Cutler, who has been paid in full the $54 million of his seven-year, $126.7 million deal inked in 2014. He could be cut loose from the team in the next month. A quarterback could be the third pick of the draft.
However, Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen will be tough to pass on. He posted 22.5 sacks in his last two seasons, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Years honors and an All-American nod as a senior.
While Texas A&M star Myles Garrett seems set as the No. 1 overall pick — barring a surprise from the often-perplexing Browns — Allen isn’t far behind in terms of talent. He could transform the Bears’ defensive front working alongside Goldman and Hicks.
The Bears do have other needs that could take priority with the third pick. They could move for a quarterback, with the intrigue for Deshaun Watson and Mitch Trubisky worth tracking into April. They could also look to LSU safety Jamal Adams.
Should the Bears move to greater priorities in the early rounds, they could look to Day 2 for depth at defensive end. This past week at the Senior Bowl, they got a good look at a player like Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson or Notre Dame’s Isaac Rochell as a potential mid-round sleeper.
Johnson, the 6-foot-4, 310-pounder, is a powerful player with good closing speed. He showed his abilities in Fangio’s defense this past week in Mobile, proving worthy of a Day 2 pick with the Bears’ North team.
Rochell showed sound athleticism for a 290-pound body, with explosiveness of the snap and the ability to win one-on-one battles with even USC’s giant left tackle Zach Banner. The Bears got to see Rochell play in Fangio’s schemes with the North team at the Senior Bowl.
“I’d love to play for the Bears,” Rochell said.
Entering this offseason, Pace must have a firm plan in place. These evaluations at the Senior Bowl will provide his front office with the opportunity to see some potential value picks in their system. A proven veteran like Campbell or a college standout like Allen would transform the Bears’ budding defense.
Pace will be busy in the coming months, with greater priorities in place. But one more defensive end could make an improving defense even better.