By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) Recall, if you will — or don’t, I won’t hold it against you — what the Bears’ defensive front looked like when they opened the 2015 season against the Green Bay Packers. Sparing you the exact specifics, misfit pieces like outside linebacker Jared Allen and inside linebacker Shea McClellin were asked to reset the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback.
After a series of moves in free agency and the early rounds of the NFL Draft, the front seven will look much different when Chicago opens the season in Houston on Sept. 11. To Bears fans, that’s a welcomed relief.
At inside linebacker, McClellin and Christian Jones have been replaced by Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. On the defensive line, Jarvis Jenkins and Ego Ferguson have been replaced by Akiem Hicks and third-round draft pick Jonathan Bullard (Florida). Allen has been replaced by first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd (Georgia) on the edge.
While the pieces must come together this offseason, the Bears front office has correctly put an emphasis on revamping what was a visible weakness last season. The Bears are faster, younger and far more dynamic than they were just five months ago.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was given very little to work with as he installed a new scheme last season and put in a difficult position. Yet the defense still gave up fewer points and yards than they did the year prior. It will again be a different look in 2016, when the Bears should be improved again.
It’s all part of general manager Ryan Pace and the new regime’s design.
“It’s our creation,” Pace said. “It’s (John) Fox, and (Vic) Fangio and all our scouts. I think it’s just getting guys that are athletic, that are versatile, that play with the tenacity we’re looking for and that’s how I see it. We want guys that can get to the quarterback too, and I think when you look at (Leonard) Floyd or (Jonathan) Bullard now, these are all guys that can all rush the passer and that’s going to help us next year.”
Floyd provides a speed element that the team sorely lacked last season. How big of a role he plays in Fangio’s scheme remains to be seen, but situationally, he will be given one job — get to the quarterback — which should flatten his learning curve as he adjusts to the nuances of the NFL game.
With Hicks and Bullard, the Bears have significantly improved their run defense on the edge. Both players can hold the point when asked to two-gap and alter the aiming point of designed runs.
Having two players who can occupy blockers at the line of scrimmage will allow Trevathan and Freeman to pursue the ball and let their instincts and speed take over.
Looking back upon the success Fangio had in San Francisco, impact players at every level made his scheme work. However, the special ability of three-down stalwarts Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman made the defense what it was.
This isn’t to say that the players the Bears have acquired are at the same level of Willis, Bowman, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith. However, the Bears’ new look on defense will alter how teams game plan for them. Suddenly, they have pieces to work with that will provide flexibility and multiplicity in their fronts.
With seven picks remaining in rounds 4-7 of the draft on Saturday, the Bears have the opportunity to address their secondary and skill positions on offense. But the early moves show what area the Bears viewed as their biggest weakness, and that was the defensive front seven.
Fans definitely agree.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.