Bears Linked to Pass-Rushing Phenom to Replace Quinn, Mack

Ryan Poles

Getty General Manger Ryan Poles of the Chicago Bears has a decision to make about Cody Whitehair next year.

This season for the Chicago Bears has been, in many ways, one to forget. Though it may also prove one the fans forever remember as a turning point for the franchise.

In just his second year as a pro, Justin Fields has quickly become a historic rusher from the QB position and clearly looks to be the answer under center for at least the next decade to come. But while Chicago has celebrated Fields’ arrival this year, the city has also dealt with the departures of two prolific pass rushers in Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn — first-team All-Pro selections in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

New general manager Ryan Poles‘ decisions to trade away the hefty contracts of those recently elite performers has, in a way, stripped the Bears’ roster to the studs. Fields’ transcendent play has, in turn, lifted the team up, keeping Chicago competitive but often on the receiving end of what can be described by optimists as “good losses.”

The Bears (3-9) don’t appear far away from a winning record and playoff contention in a winnable NFC North Division and a relatively weak conference. The hard decisions and the heartbreak the team has inflicted upon itself this season are going to allow for a quick turnaround in 2023, with approximately $115 million in salary cap space and the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft as of Week 14.

Several pro football insiders believe the rebuild will begin with the drafting of University of Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., who has remained the Bears’ projected target in mock drafts even as the team has climbed its way to near the top of the board.

Will Anderson Jr. Compared to NFL Greats Like Von Miller, Nick Bosa

Will Anderson Jr., Alabama

GettyLinebacker Will Anderson Jr. of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after a defensive stop against the Texas A&M Aggies during the second half of a game at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 8, 2022 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

In three years with the Crimson Tide, the 6-foot, 4-inch and 243-pound Anderson has been a prodigious statistical producer. He has amassed 204 total tackles, including a staggering 58.5 tackles for loss, 34.5 sacks, four passes defensed, one interception, one forced fumble and one defensive touchdown. And assuming he doesn’t opt out of it, Anderson still has a bowl game yet to play before he starts prepping for the combine.

Anderson’s measurable qualities and his consistently elite production against the best competition the collegiate game has to offer in the SEC has already drawn comparisons to some of the NFL’s best edge rushers.

“He’s my top overall player in this class, and I’ve compared him to Von Miller,” Matt Miller of ESPN wrote on November 22. “I’d place him above Aidan Hutchinson and Travon Walker among recent edge rush prospects, and he’s right on par with Nick Bosa and Chase Young from previous classes.”

Bears Could Trade No. 2 Pick For Draft Haul, Still Land Anderson

Matt Eberflus

GettyQuarterback Justin Fields (left) of the Chicago Bears talks with head coach Matt Eberflus (right) after the team’s 21-20 preseason win over the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 27, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, back when the Bears were slotted to pick fourth in the draft, Miller and ESPN colleague Jordan Reid predicted they would go with Anderson. Now in the second slot, several knowledgeable mock drafters still point to Anderson as the Bears’ guy.

The difference, however, is that if Chicago remains in the No. 2 position, the team may be able to negotiate a trade back a couple of spots, picking up even more draft capital while still ultimately selecting Anderson with its first choice.

While edge rushers like Anderson are near the top of any team’s draft needs and pay structure, the one position on the football field that is inarguably more important is that of the quarterback. The Bears already have their signal caller of the future in Fields, and the 2023 draft happens to be QB-heavy in the best possible ways.

The Houston Texans are going to finish with the worst record in the league and pick first. They will almost certainly select a quarterback, with Miller and Reid projecting reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young to end up as the first player off the board. Then, things get more interesting.

When the Carolina Panthers were poised to pick second, the clear choice was quarterback C.J. Stroud of Ohio State. But based on draft positioning heading into Week 14, the Panthers are currently selecting at No. 6.

Carolina would almost certainly be willing to deal with Chicago to move back into the No. 2 spot  and the return would be substantial — likely several picks, including potential firsts in future drafts. The San Francisco 49ers swapped first-rounders with the Miami Dolphins two years back, including two future first-round choices and a third-round selection just to move up from No. 12 to No. 3 and draft Trey Lance.

The issue is that the Bears would be likely to lose out on Anderson if they moved all the way down to No. 6. Thus, the ideal situation for Chicago is that the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos have strong finishes to the year, moving their draft positions down the board and Carolina’s up. Neither the Saints nor Broncos own their own picks, as indicated by the current draft order posted by Ari Meirov of Pro Football Focus via Twitter on Monday.

Should the draft order remain static through the final five weeks of the season, the Seattle Seahawks or the Detroit Lions may well be interested in selecting a quarterback. However, their situations under center don’t command the same kind of urgency to move up for Stroud as a team like the Panthers, meaning the price the Bears could extract from either of those organizations would probably be considerably less than what they could get from Carolina.

In any case, Chicago has positioned itself strongly for both a quick rebuild and to add Anderson as Fields’ stud counterpart on defense, while getting well elsewhere in the meantime.

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