New Bears defensive end DeMarcus Walker was “abso-[expletive]-lutely” engaging, ebullient and quotable at his introductory press conference last week. But when it came to the crux of the matter — “How effective will you be in Matt Eberflus’ defense?” — he pretty quickly put on the brakes.
“Obviously, it takes two things. It’s not just me,” said Walker, who signed a three-year, $21 million contract as a free agent. “It’s the coaches putting players in good positions to make plays and me going out and trusting the game plan and my skills. So I think those two have to come hand-in-hand. We’ll see how that goes.”
Indeed we will. Walker, a second-round draft pick by the Broncos in 2017, had a “breakout” season for the Titans in 2022 — seven sacks in 426 defensive snaps after having just two sacks in 456 defensive snaps for the Texans in 2021.
“DeMarcus Walker adds a big, tough, violent heavy-handed guy that can play defensive end and kick inside and rush, too,” Poles said. “So we’re pumped about that.”
Walker’s seven sacks last season are a significant improvement in production, but still a modest total and an unreliable indicator of more to come. Trevis Gipson had a breakout season with seven sacks in Sean Desai’s defense in 2021, but had only two in Eberflus’ defense in 2022.
That’s one reason why Walker is here. The Bears’ defensive line was historically ineffective last season. The Bears were 31st against the run (157.3 yards per game) and 32nd in sacks (20) in Eberflus’ first season after ranking 23rd (125.1) and fourth (49) in those categories under Desai in 2021.
The defensive line, in fact, had just 10.5 of the Bears’ 20 sacks last season — an embarrassingly low total. Adding to the ignominy, rookie safety Jaquan Brisker led the Bears’ in sacks — with four.
It was a drastic fall from the peak of the Vic Fangio era in 2018, when the Bears led the league in rushing defense (80.0 yards per game) and third in sacks (50). It was the worst performance by a Bears defense since 2013, when the Bears were 32nd in rush defense (161.4 yards per game) and tied for 31st and last in sacks (31).
Like that 2013 season when Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker replaced Lovie Smith, 2022 was a transition year, with Eberflus replacing head coach Matt Nagy and defensive coordinator Desai.
The Bears’ defense didn’t improve in Tucker’s second season in 2014, despite general manager Phil Emery shoring up the defensive line with ends Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston in free agency and rookie tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the draft.
As Emery did that season, Bears GM Ryan Poles is expected to fortify the defensive line this offseason. But he’s off to a slower-than-expected start. He passed on the marquee players in free agency — defensive tackles Javon Hargrave and Dre’Mont Jones — and signed only Walker and defensive tackle Andrew Billings.
And in trading the No. 1 overall draft pick, Poles moved down to No. 9, where he is not likely to get Alabama’s Will Anderson — the best pass rusher in the draft — and less likely to get Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter.
The Bears entered the offseason with four acute positions of need — wide receiver, defensive end, offensive tackle and defensive tackle. They acquired wide receiver DJ Moore from the Panthers in the trade for the No. 1 overall pick. But as they currently stand in the draft, the Bears can fill only one of the other holes with the No. 9 pick. And the educated guesses have the Bears taking an offensive tackle at that spot — with Ohio State’s Paris Johnson and Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski the leading candidates.
There’s a long way to go — the April 27-29 draft is more than five weeks away. And Poles can still fill holes after the first round of the draft. He drafted starters at No. 39 (cornerback Kyle Gordon), No. 48 (Brisker) in the second round and No. 158 (left tackle Braxton Jones) in the fifth round — though starters on a 3-14 team.
To that end, the No. 32 overall pick the Bears traded to the Steelers for wide receiver Chase Claypool still looms large — after No. 9 the Bears next pick isn’t until No. 53. But with the 53rd, 61st and 64th picks, Poles has draft capital to move up.
But the Bears’ chances to fill those defensive line holes with a proven starter or a top prospect are diminishing. One intriguing scenario still possible is drafting Carter. The 6-3, 323-pound defensive tackle was considered the No. 1 overall player in the draft by some analysts prior to the NFL Scouting Combine. But Carter’s draft stock is in limbo after he pleaded no-contest to misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing in relation to a fatal car accident on Jan. 15 in Athens, Ga. An unimpressive Pro Day performance last Wednesday in which he was nine pounds heavier than he was at the Combine, appeared out of shape and participated only in position drills — and couldn’t even finish those — further muddled Carter’s draft status.
Poles said last week the Bears “aren’t there yet” in deciding Carter’s draftable status, but he will interview Carter at Halas Hall next month to get a better gauge on that. If Carter and the top offensive linemen in the draft are available at No. 9 (or wherever the Bears ended up drafting), it would be an interesting decision for Poles, who knows he still needs help on the defensive line.
“No doubt about it,” Poles said. “I know right now you get the sense that we gotta fix everything right now and the options are going to be limited. But I feel comfortable between the rest of free agency … as well as in the draft that we can get that group as good as we possibly can.”
If there has been a theme to what is considered a critical second offseason as GM for Poles, it’s that even with all that salary cap space and draft capital, he’s still going to be patient and view the rebuild as a long-term project.
“There are going to be some weak spots on our roster that we can’t fix everything,” Poles said. “But we are going to stay flexible to do the best we can to get better. You go from short-term thinking of ‘We gotta do everything right now’ — [if] you extend that out and do things the right way, over time we’ll be able to heal up all of those positions.