Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden famously said “never mistake activity for achievement.”
The Chicago Bears have certainly been active in free agency in trying to upgrade a defense that ranked last against the rush by a wide margin; were 25th of 32 teams in allowing 7.7 yards per pass attempt; and tied for last with just 31 sacks. The question is have they achieved their goals of upgrading the run defense and pass rush with the moves they made to their defensive line?
We believe they have.
The Bears parted ways with defensive ends Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton and tackles Henry Melton and Landon Cohen. They retained tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins. They added defensive ends Lamarr Houston, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, and Willie Young, formerly of the Detroit Lions. They also brought back defensive end/tackle Israel Idonije, who played last year with the Lions after spending the previous nine seasons with the Bears.
In our evaluation, we chose to rely on the highly-reputable publication of Pro Football Focus (PFF), which grades linemen on sub-categories such as pass-rush and rush-defense production before reaching an aggregate total for overall line play that can be compared against their peers. An average grade is 0.0, grades above zero are positive, and those below zero are negative.
Let’s get started.
Lamarr Houston vs. Julius Peppers. Last season, PFF ranked Peppers 36th out of 54 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends with a grade of -4.4. He ranked 22nd rushing the passer and 44th against the rush.
Lamarr Houston, meanwhile, ranked 11th out of the same 54 qualifying 4-3 ends, 20th rushing the passer and an exceptional fifth against the run, the Bears’ most pressing need defensively. 2013 was not an anomaly for Houston, who ranked ninth overall among qualifying lineman in 2012, compared to Peppers’ 18th.
Lamarr Houston, 27 in June, is an upgrade over Peppers, 34.
Willie Young and Israel Idonije vs. Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin: In each of his four seasons with the Bears, Wootton had negative overall grades as a defensive end . In the two years he qualified, PFF ranked him 38th among 62 defensive ends in 2012 and a staggering 45th of 52 in 2013. Wootton, who split last season between defensive tackle and defensive end, ranked 32nd of 52 against the run and 43rd of 52 rushing the passer.
Yet McClellin, since moved to linebacker, made Wootton look like Deacon Jones. McClellin ranked 51st of 52 among defensive ends in 2013 and last against the rush. McClellin was only slightly better rushing the passer, ranking 46th.
PFF ranked Willie Young, 29 in September, sixteenth of 52 qualifying defensive ends in 2013, a significant upgrade over both Wooton and McClellin. He ranked tenth rushing the passer with a 4.9 grade and 21st against the run with a 5.1 grade. He was also third in the league in quarterback hurries with 48. The fact that he only registered four sacks is not troubling, as hurries can lead to turnovers and incompletions. What Willie Young will have to prove is that his solid grade was not the beneficiary of playing next to highly-ranked interior linemen in Detroit Ndamkong Suh and Nick Fairly.
Nevertheless, Willie Young appears to be a significant upgrade over Wootton and McCllelin both against the run and rushing the passer.
Israel Idonije: Idonije is coming off a lost season in Detroit in which he was graded -4.0 by PFF and did not qualify among defensive ends because he played so sparingly. However, Idonije, 34 in November, is a year removed from being ranked 12th of 62 4-3 defensive ends and having above-average rankings against both the run and rushing the passer. If he can duplicate his 2012 season, he can further upgrade the Bears’ defense.
Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins vs. Henry Melton, Corey Wootton and Landon Cohen: The interior defensive line, while probably improved through free agency, is an area the Bears will need to address in the draft. Stephen Paea, whose grades were mediocre the last two seasons, is entrenched at nose tackle unless the Bears acquire another big-name defensive end and decide to move the stout Houston to that position. Defensive tackle Melton played only three games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. PFF graded him -6.4 for those three contests. But Melton was just a year removed from being ranked seventh among 85 qualifying defensive lineman, although he had a negative grade against the run.
Wootton, despite being undersized, performed better last season as an interior lineman than as an end, ranking 35th of 69 qualifiers and registering a grade of 4.2, but also logging a negative grade against the rush. Cohen ranked 63rd of 69 overall and 67th against the run.
In a five-game cameo with the Bears after recovering from a groin injury, Jeremiah Ratliff, 33 in August, registered a grade of -2.4 but had a positive grade against the run. Injuries also limited Ratliff to six games in 2012, when he registered a positive grade of 2.3. Yet in his last two qualifying years of 2010 and 2011, in which he played all 32 games for the Dallas Cowboys, Jeremiah Ratliff ranked 20th of 77 defensive tackles and 7th of 88, respectively. If healthy, Ratliff could be a significant upgrade over Henry Melton.
Finally, the Bears retained Nate Collins, who played four games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. PFF graded him slightly above average, .3, but gave him a higher grade against the run than rushing the passer.
Given that the Bears have no depth behind Paea and are relying on an aging but accomplished player in Ratliff and a player returning from injury in Collins, nose tackle and defensive tackle should probably be priorities in this year’s draft. However, the Bears will have upgraded their interior line by having Ratliff and Collins for full seasons and the ability to move the versatile Idonije inside on passing downs.
Overall, the Bears’ free agency additions and subtractions to the defensive line appear to be activity with achievement: markedly improving their porous run defense and anemic pass rush.
Later this week, we will evaluate free agency moves made by the Bears to their linebacker group and defensive backfield.Powered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks