The 2021 season has developed into a potential do-or-die campaign for Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace. Following consecutive .500 seasons, major questions loom within a roster currently unsure of its plan under center. However, key pieces are set to enter the open market within one of the league’s top up and coming defensive units.
With new defensive coordinator Sean Desai in place, Pace would be wise to add playmakers into a Chicago defense hinged upon their ability to get after the passer and create turnovers. With Desai rumored to be switching to a base 4-3 scheme, here are three players that could fit nicely into the Bears’ veteran defense.
Haason Reddick, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
Chicago predicates itself on the ability to play FAST. Reddick fits the bill. If Chicago does indeed switch to a 4-3 defense, Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn ideally would slide down to the line, creating a formidable B-level unit in Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, and Reddick. During the draft process, Reddick was looked upon as one of the top edge rushers in the class out of Temple. His combination of length and speed was matched by none in the 2017 EDGE class.
His first three seasons in Arizona, however, were disappointing. Reddick recorded a combined 7.5 sacks from 2017-2019, starting in just 20 of his 48 appearances.
He was a completely different athlete in 2020.
Reddick exploded with 12.5 sacks last year—fourth-most in the NFL. However, with more snaps, Reddick has developed his game into an all-around linebacker. With an elite front in Chicago, Reddick’s speed from sideline-to-sideline would be utilized and prioritized alongside Smith.
Prior to the 2020 season, Arizona declined his fifth-year option, allowing Reddick to explore the open market at season's end. As is often the case in a contract year, Reddick has now put himself in place to earn a substantial payday, and Chicago should sign the check. With his scheme versatility, Reddick offers Chicago an extremely athletic athlete at the second level. Alongside Smith and Trevathan, Chicago’s linebacking unit would rival the best in the NFL.
Denico Autry, DE, Indianapolis Colts
With Roy Robertson-Harris set to enter the open market, the addition of Autry adjacent Akiem Hicks would offer Pace additional juice up front without breaking the bank. Chicago currently sits $6M over the cap, but they tout roster flexibility, leaving options open to restructure contracts, or cut dead weight. Higher priced names in Ndamukong Suh and Everson Griffen drew my interest here, but Autry is three years younger than both and will be much, much cheaper to sign.
At 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds, Autry possesses ideal length and agility to work within Chicago’s hardy defensive line. His game centers around his ability to rush the passer, exactly what Chicago missed in Robertson-Harris. In his three seasons as a Colt, Autry totaled 20 sacks (6.6 per year) and could represent one of the safest production floors of any defensive lineman in this year’s class.
J.C. Jackson*, CB, New England Patriots
With Jackson a restricted free-agent, the scenario of restructuring Kyle Fuller’s $27M deal could be in play. Or, they could save major cash and cut Fuller altogether. The scenario isn’t a welcomed one-for-one involving one of the NFC’s top cover corners, but Jackson could arguably provide the same juice outside as Fuller. It’s a discussion that must be had given the cap implications.
Furthermore, Chicago lacked playmakers at the third level of the defense. Don’t get me wrong, there are some pieces there (Fuller and Eddie Jackson), but a third ball-hawking athlete on the backend couldn’t hurt. Jackson had nine picks in 2020, second only to Xavien Howard of the Miami Dolphins.
Jackson is special when it comes to making plays on the football with elite footwork and a high football IQ. A tough ask in the NFL, Jackson’s game has been headlined by consistency, as he’s recorded at least three picks in each of his first three seasons in the NFL. With Artie Burns set to explore the market, Pace’s first call on March 17—when free agency opens—should be to Jackson if he’s given anything other than a first-round tender by the Patriots.