Updated on March 3
It’s not a ridiculous premise to think the Bears could have two new starters at defensive end next season. Likely? No, but changes are on the way at a crucial position.
Corey Wootton, who spent most of the 2013 season at three-technique, is a free agent, but should be one of the top priorities to bring back. The Bears have admitted that Shea McClellin’s position is not defensive end and Julius Peppers’ cap number makes him a question mark to return.
The franchise tag for defensive ends is expensive, projected to be near $12.5 million. That could prevent other teams from using it, allowing players to hit the market.
Last offseason was not fruitful for free-agent defensive ends looking to cash in — Cliff Avril got a two-year, $13 million deal.
General manager Phil Emery and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will have some very good options in free agency if the Bears want to write a big check for a D-end — seven of the top 16 4-3 defensive ends, as rated by Pro Football Focus, are set to hit free agency.
We’ll assume the Bears remain in a 4-3 base defense when looking at five defensive ends that could help upgrade the pass rush, and that the stud of the class expected to get the biggest haul, Greg Hardy, received the franchise tag from the Panthers.
Justin Tuck: In his ninth NFL season, Tuck had 11 sacks and 21 QB hits. The Bears’ top three defensive ends combined for 24 hits of the quarterback. Tuck is the one on this list who would qualify as a veteran for a short-term deal that wouldn’t break the bank. He turns 31 in March, is a locker room leader and has missed only five games in the past seven seasons.
Michael Bennett: Martellus Bennett has said he will do his best to recruit his brother Michael. Playing on a one-year, $4.8 million contract in Seattle, Bennett had 8.5 sacks and 25 QB hits in 2013. His plus-20.9 pass-rush grade was third on PFF among 4-3 defensive ends. Bennett, 28, didn’t get a long-term deal last free agency, and would probably want one this time around.
Michael Johnson: Johnson played on the franchise tag last season, and isn’t expected to get it from the Bengals again. His sack numbers dipped, which could bring down his price tag. Still, Johnson was ranked fourth overall on PFF and second in run defense with a +21.2, but had only 3.5 sacks to go along with 23 quarterback hits.
Lamarr Houston: He told reporters he is unsure if the Raiders want to re-sign him, but coach Dennis Allen said he’d love to have Houston back. In 2013, Houston had six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. He will turn 27 in June and has not missed a game in his four NFL seasons. He is the biggest of the targets at 300 pounds. He led defensive ends with 54 “stops," a tackle that constitutes an offensive failure, on PFF.
Willie Young: The Bears could pluck Young from the Lions. The 6-4, 251-pound end turns 29 in September and started 15 games after zero starts from 2010-12. He had three sacks and was solid against the run, plus his 48 QB hurries were third among 4-3 DEs. The Lions have a new staff and depth at defensive end with Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones.