As expected, the Chicago Bears parted ways with both general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy at the end of the 2021 regular season. The results didn't always present themselves on the field, and their personnel decisions were head-scratching at times.
So now the team is moving forward in a different direction. Ryan Poles, who was previously the Kansas City Chiefs' executive director of player personnel, was hired as the new general manager on Jan. 25. Shortly after that, Poles hired former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to be the team's new head coach. Eberflus then hired Alan Williams to be his defensive coordinator, he was the linebackers coach for the Colts last season.
The Bears have 24 pending unrestricted free agents on their roster (per Spotrac.com) and also have some decisions to make about veteran players that are under contract. It'll be the job of the new front office and coaching staff to decide which players will be a part of the rebuilding effort. On defense, the regime change brings with it a scheme change, which means a role change for the outside linebackers.
The Bears have been using a 3-4 alignment since 2015 but will be transitioning to a 4-3 under Eberflus and Williams. It's a scheme that will be familiar to Bears fans but it's too soon to tell how it will look in 2022 given the current personnel. For now, here is how the Bears stack up at outside linebacker.
Although he's one of the most feared pass rushers in the league, health issues over the past two seasons have limited his effectiveness. Nagging injuries — especially the foot injury that ended his season at seven games last year — limited Mack to just 69 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 15.0 sacks, and 20 quarterback hits in 2020-21 combined. He's appeared on the injury report many times during that span, he was held out of numerous practices as a result, and wasn't the same player when he took the field.
Mack wasn't as explosive off the ball as he used to be, he couldn't fight off blocks the way he used to, and didn't display the speed he's accustomed to. Hopefully the surgery will correct those issues, but only time will tell. But that's not the only issue that the Bears will have with Mack. There have been whispers of either trading Mack, or restructuring his contract, as he's set to count more than $30 million towards the cap in 2022. He's under contract for three more seasons.
Chicago currently has an estimated $25.3 million in cap space for 2022 (per Over The Cap), and they have several other needs to address, including other pending free agents. Mack remains a key player but the salary cap shows no mercy in the NFL. A restructure could benefit both parties while a trade would create some big shoes to fill.
Quinn set a new franchise single-season sack record last year (18.5), surpassing the standard long set by Hall of Famer Richard Dent, and more than making up for an abysmal 2020 in the process. Quinn also recorded 49 total tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 22 QB hits, and four forced fumbles on his way to earning his third Pro Bowl invitation. Ideally, the Bears would love to have both Quinn and Khalil Mack wreaking havoc on opposing offenses opposite of each other. But Quinn also has been the subject of trade and/or restructure rumors.
Quinn's cap hit for 2022 is more than $17 million right now and he's also under contract through 2024. An adjustment could spread the future cap charges out while freeing some money to address weak spots on the 2022 roster. Hopefully, it won't come down to picking either one or the other, but don't be surprised if you hear Quinn's and Mack's name in trade rumors over the next several months.
After making just five tackles as a rookie two years ago, Gipson stepped up his production with 39 total tackles, seven tackles for a loss, seven sacks, and 10 QB hits while making nine starts in 2022. Now while that's definitely a step in the right direction, you have to wonder what a potential scheme change could mean for his future. Especially since he's played out of a two-point stance for most of his football life. Gipson is under contract for two more seasons.
He made two tackles in five games before a torn pectoral muscle ended his first season with the Bears. Attaochu is still under contract for next season at a reasonable cost (cap hit is $3.1 million), which probably means he'll get the opportunity to stick around. In eight seasons (79 total games), he has accumulated 146 tackles, 31 TFLs, 20.5 sacks, and 43 QB hits. He's played in a 3-4 scheme his entire professional career, so he will have to show the coaching staff he can make the adjustment.
The Bears signed the 10-year veteran to the practice squad last November, switched him to outside linebacker, and elevated him to the active roster for the team's final six games. He collected just seven tackles in those games (no sacks or quarterback hits) and turned 34 in November. He's a pending free agent and probably won't cost a lot to come back. The question is how does he fit into the team's plans. He does offer scheme versatility, having played as both an outside linebacker and defensive end and he has some familiarity with new defensive line coach Travis Smith. Both were with the Raiders from 2016-18.
So far, Khalil's younger brother has mostly been a practice squad player for the Bears. He suited up for the Week 11 loss to Baltimore and recorded one tackle, but hasn't really seen the field since. The Bears gave him a reserve/futures deal for next season.
After getting 15.0 sacks in four seasons at FCS Stony Brook, the Bears signed Kamara as an undrafted player last year. He began the year on the practice squad, but wound up seeing eight games of action in which he accounted for seven tackles. He was also given a futures deal for '22.
He also started '21 on the practice squad, and ended up appearing in two games were he was used on special teams. He was eventually returned to the practice squad, and also got a reserve contract for next season.
After only recording three tackles across 17 total games with the Buccaneers and Jets combined since 2019, Dawkins is hoping that the Bears will keep him around for a while as he enters his fourth professional season.
The Bears have some tough decisions to make at this position, and those choices will not only set the tone for 2022 but for years to come.
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.