By Chris Emma–
(CBS) By its very definition, potential is having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something.
That’s where the Bears’ bolstered defense stands 30 days away from reporting to training camp in Bourbonnais. It clearly was superior to the reshuffled offense during the offseason program. There was constant pressure on the quarterback, and the ball often hit the turf and sometimes landed in the arms of a defensive back.
Yes, this is only June — but it didn’t stop the Bears from feeling good about what this defense could become.
“It can definitely be a top-10 defense,” new Bears defensive lineman Jaye Howard said.
Howard joined this defense as one of its final pieces, the other five-technique that general manager Ryan Pace has long sought. The Bears missed on him during the 2016 offseason but landed him on a one-year deal after the Chiefs released Howard on a failed physical designation stemming from a hip injury last season.
Howard sees the Bears’ defense similarly to the Chiefs’ — a unit with a tenacious defensive front and players in the back end who he believes can create takeaways. With quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky adjusting in the offseason program, the defense wasn’t easing up.
The Bears missed out on their top targets in free agency, with cornerbacks A.J. Bouye signing in Jacksonville and Stephon Gilmore going to New England. But the beleaguered secondary improved by adding cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper along with safety Quintin Demps — steady veterans stepping in for replacement-level players.
Demps recorded a career-best six interceptions in 13 games last season, a number two shy of the Bears’ cumulative total. Cooper recorded four in Arizona. Then there’s Amukamara, whose best days came in New York. He left in free agency after recording no interceptions in one season with the Jaguars.
“I don’t want to start bouncing around teams,” Amukamara said. “I want to find a home somewhere, what I did in New York. I’m trying to give this team everything I’ve got.”
Success for the Bears defense starts with the pass rush. The line seems set with Howard, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman and a rotation including Jonathan Bullard, Mitch Unrein and C.J. Wilson. The team has a solid situation at inside linebacker with Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, who surprisingly could be ready for training camp after suffering a serious knee injury last November. Nick Kwiatkoski should see a major role as well at linebacker.
It’s possible that outside linebacker will be the best strongest position group on the team. Pernell McPhee is healthy and lighter, and Leonard Floyd appears to have bulked up. Willie Young, Lamarr Houston and Sam Acho should play key roles, too.
“Dominate,” McPhee said of his group. “Destroy every opponent that we face. Just showing the world why they actually got these guys in the room. Me, Leonard, Willie, Lamarr, Sam. Just dominate in the NFL. That’s my focus. That’s what I want us to do, and that’s what I think we’re going to do.”
Can the Bears live up to Howard’s prediction as a top-10 unit? They finished 15th in yards per game allowed and 24th in points allowed per game in 2016, when they were decimated by injuries. With good health and progress, the top-10 defensive goal certainly is possible. And at the least, the Bears’ takeaway numbers should improve after recording just 11 all last season.
When speaking of his hopes for the defense, Hicks was informed that not a single player on the defense has been elected to the Pro Bowl — not Trevathan, a leader for the Broncos’ defense; or Freeman, who has posted at least 110 tackles in four of his five NFL seasons; not Demps for his six picks last season; and not Floyd for a strong rookie showing.
The Bears have young talent throughout their defense, but the respect hasn’t yet been earned. There’s plenty to prove. The potential is certainly there.