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Jonathan Wood: Grading The Roster/Defense/Special Teams


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The Latest from Da Bears Blog: Grading the Roster: Defense & Specials

 

Grading the Roster: Defense & Specials

Posted: 20 Jul 2021 12:00 AM PDT

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Today, we look at defense and special teams.


Defensive Line: 8

Key Players: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Mario Edwards

Roster Depth: Angelo Blackson, Khyiris Tonga, Mike Pennel, LaCale London, Daniel Archibong

Akiem Hicks is still a stud, Eddie Goldman is back after opting out in 2020, and Bilal Nichols can now man the defensive end spot where he is best. That gives the Bears an excellent starting trio. They’ve also improved their depth, re-signing Edwards and bringing in Blackson at defensive end while adding two competent nose tackles in Tonga and Pennel in case Goldman goes down with injury. This group should be a clear strength for the Bears in 2021.


Edge Rushers: 7

Key Players: Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Jeremiah Attaochu

Roster Depth: Trevis Gipson, Charles Snowden, James Vaughters, Ledarius Mack, Austin Calitro

Khalil Mack remains one of the best all-around edge rushers in the NFL, but his pass rushing productivity took a dip from great to good last year. Robert Quinn had a horrible 2020 as he battled through injury. Both players are now over 30; can they rebound? Chicago’s defense is built with the idea that this will be a dominant duo, but the pass rush was surprisingly mediocre in 2020, and they will need to be markedly better in 2021 to mask holes on the back end.

The addition of Jeremiah Attaochu as a 3rd rusher is a real upgrade and provides depth and insurance in case Quinn continues to struggle. The Bears have also spoken highly of toolsy sophomore Trevis Gipson this offseason, but it’s hard to put too much stock into offseason praise until we see it on the field.

One area that is overlooked here comes in pass coverage. Neither Quinn nor Mack (nor Attaochu) can do much there, but the Bears have typically had a versatile OLB who gets a decent number of snaps (Leonard Floyd through 2019, Barkevious Mingo in 2020). Undrafted rookie Charles Snowden fits that mold of player, and I won’t be surprised if he earns a roster spot and potentially a role on defense.

 


Inside Linebackers: 6

Key Players: Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, Christian Jones

Roster Depth: Josh Woods, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Caleb Johnson

Roquan Smith was the breakout Bear of 2020, emerging as a legitimate All Pro at the heart of Chicago’s defense. Unfortunately, Danny Trevathan continued his decline and can no longer be counted upon as a reliable player, especially in pass coverage. The Bears will need to continue to pull him off the field on passing downs to keep him from getting exposed.

Lack of depth was a major issue last year, as Iyiegbuniwe and Woods are mostly special teamers, but the Bears added experienced veteran Christian Jones this offseason to address that. The improved depth is a plus, but the presence of Trevathan as a liability in the starting lineup makes it difficult to grade this unit any higher, no matter how good Roquan Smith is.


Cornerbacks: 1

Key Players: Jaylon Johnson, Desmond Trufant, Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, Thomas Graham

Roster Depth: Artie Burns, Tre Roberson, Teez Tabor, Dionte Ruffin, Michael Joseph, Xavier Crawford, Rojesterman Farris

Jaylon Johnson was amazing in the first month of his rookie season and awful after that. Desmond Trufant hasn’t been good since 2018. Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley showed flashes in 2020, but are undersized late round draft picks who have very limited sample sizes. Thomas Graham is a 6th round rookie who didn’t play football in 2020.

There’s potential in this group, but not a single sure thing. That’s why I had to list so many key players – we legitimately don’t know who will end up getting playing time. Until young players emerge and prove they can be reliable starters, there’s an argument to be made that this is the worst CB group in the NFL.


Safeties: 7

Key Players: Eddie Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Deon Bush, Jordan Lucas

Roster Depth: DeAndre Houston-Carson, Marqui Christian

Tashaun Gipson is what he is: a capable safety who’s nothing special. This unit is really all about Eddie Jackson, who had a down year in 2020 following an outstanding start to his career from 2017-19. If he bounces back to form as one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL, this is a strong position group deserving of a 7 or 8. If he repeats 2020, his missed tackles start to be a bigger issue, and it’s a below average unit that probably gets a 4.

I tend to think Jackson will bounce back, much like Kyle Fuller did in 2020, and the grade is further bolstered by excellent depth from Deon Bush and Jordan Lucas. Both have proven to be capable spot starters in the past, giving Chicago’s safeties a solid floor.


Defense Total: 6

These groups average out to a 5.8, which rounds to a 6. There’s real star power here with Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, and Eddie Jackson (should he bounce back), but the entire CB unit is a giant question mark, and Danny Trevathan is a coverage liability that opposing offenses can exploit. There are also concerns about age, as a number of key players are over 30, when play starts to decline and injuries become more common.

I think it’s fair to think of the defense as a slightly above average group overall, with the potential to be appreciably better if the young CBs can exceed expectations and play well. If they can’t do that and age starts to catch up to some of the big names in the front 7, however, things could get ugly in a hurry.

There’s also the added unknown of coaching changes on defense. Stud defensive line coach Jay Rodgers left for San Diego, which was a significant loss. Rodgers had been in Chicago since 2015 and churned out a steady stream of quality production from players up and down his roster. In my estimation, the defensive line is the best position group on the roster, but will the returning players be able to continue that same production under a new position coach?

Then there is the matter of new defensive coordinator Sean Desai, who replaces the retiring Chuck Pagano. Desai has been with the Bears as a safeties coach for a while, but has never coordinated before, so he’s a pretty big unknown. It’s highly possible he proves to be an upgrade over Pagano, who wasn’t exactly inspiring in his 2 seasons in Chicago, but it’s also possible he ends up being a dud.


Specialists: 5

Key Players: K Cairo Santos, P Pat O’Donnell, LS Patrick Scales

Roster Depth: K Brian Johnson

This entire group returns intact from 2020, which is a good thing for the Bears. Pat O’Donnell remains an average punter – he was in average punt distance, but 3rd in punts downed inside the 20. Patrick Scales is a perfectly fine long snapper. Cairo Santos had a great year in 2020, but was awful for years before that, so he needs to prove 2020 was not an aberration. If he does, this group takes a significant step forward, but until then I can’t consider them any better than average.

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I'm pretty in sync with this.

No issues with DL, I hope Goldman comes back and shows fresh legs.

If Quinn bounces back then that grade should be a 8, if Mack gets back to form its a 9.

Smith props up the ILB grade, I'm not a believer that DT stays at least where he finished 2020. I think his body is done, but I'd love to be wrong. I'm simply betting on Father Time, nothing personal against him.

CBs is dead on. For potential they are clearly higher than a 1 but we have massive concerns with experience and injuries. Even with Fuller that only goes to a 5 for me.

Safeties will also be big on how Desai employs them. Does he have EJax sit back and read to make plays like Fangio did? Or does he try to pull EJax toward the LOS more like Pagano did? I will maintain you let your best players do what they do best, then fill in the latter with whatever you can. You don't put Mack in coverage, don't pull EJax up, etc.

Specialists could absolutely be higher. Scales has been stellar at LS, which clearly isn't the same as a stellar QB or EDGE. But he has done it perfectly so far. POD is the definition of meh. Santos is the swing guy. If he is great like last year then this is an 8.5 group IMO. If he is bad it is a 4.

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1 hour ago, Sugashane said:

Smith props up the ILB grade, I'm not a believer that DT stays at least where he finished 2020. I think his body is done, but I'd love to be wrong. I'm simply betting on Father Time, nothing personal against him.

Smith has become a true stud ILB.  DT is probably into his decline but his leadership was pivitol in Pace's decision to extend him.  What I'm gonna be watching for is who will replace him on passing downs?  Does Iggy finally step into that role?  Josh Woods?  Do they go with a SS like Bush?

One kid I want to see play in the preseason is Caleb Johnson.  He played his college ball at a tiny college in TX and in his game tapes he's was all over the field making plays.  He's even smaller than Roquan Smith (220lbs) but he plays like a human missile.  With a year on the PS and an offseason to add some weight and muscle he might be one of those "sleeper" UDFA guys who makes it as a pro.  Good coverage guy too.

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1 hour ago, soulman said:

Smith has become a true stud ILB.  DT is probably into his decline but his leadership was pivitol in Pace's decision to extend him.  What I'm gonna be watching for is who will replace him on passing downs?  Does Iggy finally step into that role?  Josh Woods?  Do they go with a SS like Bush?

One kid I want to see play in the preseason is Caleb Johnson.  He played his college ball at a tiny college in TX and in his game tapes he's was all over the field making plays.  He's even smaller than Roquan Smith (220lbs) but he plays like a human missile.  With a year on the PS and an offseason to add some weight and muscle he might be one of those "sleeper" UDFA guys who makes it as a pro.  Good coverage guy too.

Leadership was definitely a quality he could lean on, but I think Smith was the one who needed to (and did) take over a leadership role. It sucks that someone who is a leader has to be subbed out to prevent being exposed. I'm not sure who would be a good sub for him, makes me wish Floyd would have been able to be the ILB next to him. That was a better fit for him in the 3-4 anyway. Oh well.

It would be cool to see Johnson pop. I watched a little of him on YouTube after reading your post. Doesn't seem like a real explosive guy but looked like (in highlights of course) to have a really good feel for where the offense wanted to go. Hopefully that is the norm for him. We saw with Smith/Nick K that you can do damn well with a speed guy paired with a smart physical guy in this defense. With Goldman back that should help DT especially.

I'm still hoping Snowden shows some traits that allow him to be a solid developmental prospect. He doesn't have a standout traits like speed or power to hang his hat on to be an EDGE but with his length and overall traits he could find a good role as an ILB who can occasionally rush the passer.

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Always interesting to follow the growth of some of these UDFA guys.  Some are nothing more than a warm body in camp in order to fill out the numbers but some appear to have some very coachable talent so you wonder if they'll ever rise to the level of starters.

Snowden and Johnson are kind of intriguing in that way as is Ladarius Mack who IMHO should be looked at as an ILB as opposed to an edge guy.

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On 7/20/2021 at 9:39 PM, Sugashane said:

I'm pretty in sync with this.

Seriously? 

On 7/20/2021 at 9:19 AM, soulman said:

That statement isn't even SORT OF true.

On 7/20/2021 at 9:19 AM, soulman said:

Until young players emerge and prove they can be reliable starters, there’s an argument to be made that this is the worst CB group in the NFL.

And this is just downright ridiculous. More putrid garbage. 

This guy hated the Bears draft, hated that they let Fuller walk, and is now throwing a temper tantrum on the internet. 

He's proven himself to be a fool, and I've lost all respect for him. 

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Wood is strictly a numbers and stats guy.  Most analyticals are.

He has always backed his positions with those numbers and stats because they represent the true facts to him which he uses in his analyses.

So for him it's all about quantifying his analysis whereas others may take a much different approach which in many cases may be deceptive.

IMHO the analysis he did on the Bears lack of big plays and it's impact on their offense and scoring is IMHO spot on.  For you and others who may be more willing to qualify your opinions you simply see things from a different perspective.  In his perspective the numbers don't lie and he quantifies it.

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1 hour ago, Heinz D. said:

Seriously? 

That statement isn't even SORT OF true.

And this is just downright ridiculous. More putrid garbage. 

This guy hated the Bears draft, hated that they let Fuller walk, and is now throwing a temper tantrum on the internet. 

He's proven himself to be a fool, and I've lost all respect for him. 

I actually am.

DL is rated high but not crazy high. It is assuming Goldman doesn't miss a beat. He shouldn't have much rust at his position.

Mack props up the EDGE. Without him they are likely a 3. If Quinn bounces back this can go up, but I'm not expecting much from him. Age eventually gets everyone, and he isn't a pocket passing QB that changes his game. He relies on a crazy burst and he may have lost it.

Smith is awesome but DT was average at best during his best stretch of 3-4 games. He was hot garbage for at least the first quarter of the season. Jones isn't bad depth, but he might have to replace DT this season.

I've said the CBs are a massive weakness of the team, even before looking at how the key guys are bordering on earning the title of 'fragile.' Johnson missed 3 games last year, Trufant has missed 17 of the last 32, Vildor only started 1 game and defended only 1 pass all season, Shelly has 2 starts and gave up 80% completion last year on 20 pass attempts, Graham/Roberson have never taken an NFL snap, Burns is basically the Kevin White of CBs (physically gifted but fragile with little actual skill), Tabor is slow and hasn't taken a snap since 2018... You and I disagree on this group and that's completely cool. Believe me, I hope you're right and that Desai puts them in the best position to succeed. But Johnson did have a rough stretch (I think awful is too much FWIW, DT was actually awful early on) and got beat deep a number of times that luckily the opposition failed to connect on. He's at the second hardest position in the NFL IMO and is still learning how to be a pro CB. That's a lot to ask from him IMO, though the others likely get picked on since he is head and shoulders better than anyone else in this group.

Safeties and STs seem pretty straightforward.

 

IDK who the guy is, I don't do Twitter and if not for Soul posting (thanks too Soul)  I'd have never seen the article. So I can't comment on his past postings but I see his logic in his statements. Of course nothing he says is law, all our opinions are just as subjective unless we dig for the data to back them up. I think we have a few stars but this isn't the 2018 defense, not even close IMO. Still should at least be average though.

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9 minutes ago, Sugashane said:

I actually am.

Any team that has Johnson on it doesn't sport the worst CB group in the league. 

Totally disagree with you on that one, bud. 

We'll know very soon how things will unspool. 

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1 hour ago, soulman said:

Wood is strictly a numbers and stats guy.  Most analyticals are.

He has always backed his positions with those numbers and stats because they represent the true facts to him which he uses in his analyses.

Then he needs to wait and base his analysis of next season when he actually has numbers and stats to analyze.  Until then, and for the time being, he looks like a clown. 

Is Woods going to grade the Jaguars offense, and give the quarterbacks a "1" rating? 'Cause, well...we just can't say what Lawrence is yet, and Minshew is some kind of nebulous unknown? That makes sense, right? 

Because that's EXACTLY what he's doing with the Bears, and it's entirely based on childish (and rather unprofessional) frustration. It's clickbait AT BEST.

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1 hour ago, Heinz D. said:

Then he needs to wait and base his analysis of next season when he actually has numbers and stats to analyze.  Until then, and for the time being, he looks like a clown. 

Is Woods going to grade the Jaguars offense, and give the quarterbacks a "1" rating? 'Cause, well...we just can't say what Lawrence is yet, and Minshew is some kind of nebulous unknown? That makes sense, right? 

Because that's EXACTLY what he's doing with the Bears, and it's entirely based on childish (and rather unprofessional) frustration. It's clickbait AT BEST.

Wood can't grade next season until he has the stats from this season anymore than I can analyze and project a stocks upside potential until I see it's most recent balance sheet and quarterly earnings statement.  To do otherwise would be raw speculation which has been my whole point.

Were Wood grading JAX's QBs he would be primarily grading Minshew based on his previous stats while commenting on what he believed Lawrence might be able to add just as he did with the Bears and Fields.  Ya' can't analyze stats and info that doesn't yet exist can ya'?

Definite disagreement on the "click bait" thing.

Wood does not post nationally.  He only posts on DaBears Blog which is only of interest to Bears fans and typically available via an email subscription so he's not fishing for click bait.  Besides most of his work is far too lengthy and boring for the casual fan.  It only attracts other analyticals like myself.  With all due respect.....if you were more into his kind of science you'd better understand his results. 

That said we still disagree on some points we're not likely to resolve which is fine.  Be pretty boring around here if we all saw every shade of blue as being the exact same wouldn't it?

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While I agree that the CB unit is bad, I think the upside exists for a better grade than a 1. If we're going to rate the OT group a 2 based on the promise of Jenkins, then I think a CB group with even more demonstrated NFL performance deserves at least that.

Basically this defense revolves around the front 7 and generating pressure. They'll be OK against the run. If Mack, Hicks, et al. can cause havoc, then they have enough opportunistic players in the secondary to capitalize. If not, this secondary is going to get roasted.

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2 hours ago, abstract_thought said:

While I agree that the CB unit is bad, I think the upside exists for a better grade than a 1. If we're going to rate the OT group a 2 based on the promise of Jenkins, then I think a CB group with even more demonstrated NFL performance deserves at least that.

Basically this defense revolves around the front 7 and generating pressure. They'll be OK against the run. If Mack, Hicks, et al. can cause havoc, then they have enough opportunistic players in the secondary to capitalize. If not, this secondary is going to get roasted.

A grade of 1 for our CBs is a bit harsh but as I posted to Heinz all Wood can go by is a LCB position that's been left vacant by the departure of Fuller and a RCB manned by a 2nd year 2nd round pick with some seemingly chronic shoulder injury issues.  Furthermore our depth is not great at all.

But if we choose to be more optimistic this may well be the position that can upgrade itself most provided the talent we do have can remain healthy and step up to the occasion.  It's just not possible to grade higher on that without speculation which isn't Wood's approach.

Here's what I see as a possibility.

With the return of Goldman and the experienced depth provided by Pennel I believe Desai should be able to dial up a more aggressive pass rush from Mack, Quinn, Hicks, Nichols, etc and Edwards along with some clever blitzing by the ILB.  That coupled with allowing Jackson to play his more customary FS spot in "centerfield" and Desai using his knowledge of Fangio's talent for disguising coverage is what can really help the CBs.

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On 7/22/2021 at 10:30 PM, Heinz D. said:

Any team that has Johnson on it doesn't sport the worst CB group in the league. 

Totally disagree with you on that one, bud. 

We'll know very soon how things will unspool. 

That's perfectly fine. Worst, bottom 3, bottom 6, whatever. Still a fragile and inexperienced group overall in my opinion. I don't believe Johnson is a top 32 CB in the NFL right now, or he might be in the fringe there. I don't think any of the others are in the top 64, maybe not even in the top 100 best CBs in the league.

This didn't happen by accident though, Pace and Desai absolutely know the risk they are taking and are at least comfortable enough with it, plus I am still not getting any consultation requests from Halas Hall for some reason  lol, so I'm happy to let them do what they're paid to do. Either they get to pat themselves on the back or it may lead to someone being unemployed. And to be honest, if this risk helped us land Fields and Jenkins then I fully support it. CB groups are easier to build up then franchise QB and LT duos.

Hopefully come Dec you get to tell me you told me so!

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My guess is they're hoping veteran competition coupled with a 2nd year jump from Vildor will be enough to solidify LCB and provide depth at RCB.

It's not as if the secondary lacks in experience.

Trufant has been a Pro Bowl level CB before but his age and injury history are poised against him.  But if he can stay healthy and feels he has something to prove he may be OK even as little more than depth provided Vildor ascends as a starter.

Burns is a former 1st round pick whose personal life became a mess.  That would have impacted a whole lot of guys play.  The Bears coaches say he was doing well in camp last year before he was hurt.  He's another guy looking to save his career and has something to prove.

Roberson was a whiz in the CFL with 95 tackles and 10 picks over two seasons.  The CFL isn't the NFL but we've had a fair amount of success with players who've played Canadian college ball and he has the size and length we like in our CBs.

Shelley and Graham will duke it out for the Slot CB spot and maybe even Vildor is he fails to secure LCB.

The rest are a collection of draftees and UDFA who've never been able to stick on an NFL roster but may provide some PS depth.

I think Johnson will be fine provided he can get over his shoulder issues.  He looked great throughout the first half of the season then began to fade.  But then so did Fuller.  They actually had similar scoring over the course of the season.  Much like Vildor we can only hope we get a second year jump outta them and along with vet depth the secondary also gets a bit of a tailwind from Desai's coaching.

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