Can the Bears' defensive line outperform expectations?

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Everything starts with the defensive front. Success on defense hinges on a team's ability to get in the face of opposing quarterbacks, and those who do it often have one of the league's top units. On the other hand, those who do not tend to require their defensive backs to play at a high level to keep their heads above water, and that is not a recipe for sustained success.

While the Bears passing attack took the brunt of criticism for their uninspiring performance last year, anyone who watched the games could have told you the defensive line was a much bigger issue. They failed to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season long and finished with a league-low 20 sacks. They also hemorrhaged yards to opposing running backs, allowing the second-most yards in the league by season's end.

Unsurprisingly, their issues up front made life significantly more difficult for the rest of the defense. They also struggled mightily on third down, allowing teams to convert on a league-high 49% of their third-down attempts, and gave up the most points in the league. 

First off, it's impossible to talk about the Bears' defensive front without mentioning the elephant in the room. There has been significant buzz around a potential Chris Jones trade. While adding a player of his caliber would certainly move the needle for Chicago's defense, I will leave the hypotheticals out of this season preview until he is officially in blue and orange on gameday.

As for the moves they did make this offseason, the Bears added a handful of players who will immediately make their front better as soon as they step foot on the field. The group's headliner was Yannick Ngakoue, who has had at least eight sacks every year of his career and has the seventh-most quarterback takedowns (65) since he entered the league in 2016. He may not be considered an elite pass-rusher, but he will definitely provide them with some juice off the edge.

The team desperately needed to improve their ability to sack the quarterback, and Ngakoue should help them do just that. However, there is reason to believe he could be a liability in the ground game, as he has been a below-average player against the run throughout his career. However, the team bookended him with a player very capable of stopping the run in Demarcus Walker. The 28-year-old has been a rotational defensive lineman throughout his career, but he played extremely well in an extended role last season, when he led the Titans with ten TFLs.  

Walker has always been stout against the run, but something seemed to click in terms of his ability to get after the passer last year, as he finished the campaign with a career-high seven sacks. He may be a very different player than Akiem Hicks, but there are some parallels between the signing and the addition of the former fan favorite seven years ago. Both players were just entering their prime (Hicks was 26 and Walker is 28) and were previously used in a rotational role before taking on more responsibility in the Windy City. The odds of Chicago striking gold again with the signing seem unlikely, but Walker is arguably a more refined pass-rusher than Hicks was when they added him.

The Bears also addressed their issues up front with three new additions to the interior in Andrew Billings, who signed a one-year deal in free agency, and Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens, who were selected in the second and third round, respectively. Billings is a big-bodied defensive tackle who should provide immediate assistance in shoring up the run defense from the 1-technique spot. Meanwhile, Pickens and Dexter are standout athletes who bring serious pass-rushing upside to the defensive line room. It may take some time before the team can trust either rookie to make an impact on early downs, but they both showed promise in limited action against the pass.

Two players that won't be around to help the Bears this season are Terrell Lewis and Trevis Gipson, who had solid performances this preseason. They were both surprise cuts earlier this week, leaving relatively unknown commodities in Dominique Robinson, Rasheem Green, and Khalid Kareem, who was claimed off waivers on Tuesday, as the remaining backups at edge rusher.

Chicago has ample draft capital and will be in position to bolster their defensive line next offseason. However, they also have enough talent on their current roster to outperform expectations in the short term. Their defensive front might not feature any world-beaters, but there is no denying they took a step in the right direction in that area in the offseason. Only time will tell if their moves will pay off, but they can really only improve upon last season's abysmal performance.

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