LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Friday’s setup was nothing new for Yannick Ngakoue.
The pass-rusher answered questions at his fifth introductory news conference in five seasons about his new set of teammates, coaches and expectations.
For a pass-rusher as productive as Ngakoue, having racked up at least eight sacks in every season of his NFL career, the merry-go-round of teams — which now includes the Chicago Bears — has become the norm since the 2020 season.
Yet, something about this feels different for Ngakoue. Pointing to a tattoo of a bear on his right hand, the pass-rusher said his journey to Chicago aligns with where he is in his career. If the defensive end replicates the 9.5-sack season he had a year ago in Indianapolis, a long-term deal by the age of 30 might be attainable.
“It was a great fit,” Ngakoue said. “Going back to what this culture means here, just the history here and also, it’s a great transition — easy transition — with my position coach [Travis Smith] and my defensive coordinator [Alan Williams].”
For the Bears, getting any level of production similar to what Ngakoue generated the past four seasons would make the one-year, $10.5 million investment worth it.
Chicago’s pursuit of pass rush help is as pivotal to the team’s growth as the additions the Bears made on offense to help Justin Fields become a franchise quarterback. General manager Ryan Poles has remained steady the past few months, finding ways to add to the roster while being realistic about what the Bears can do in one offseason.
But the glaring need along the defensive line that generated 20 sacks (the fewest in the NFL) and pressured opposing quarterbacks on 22% of pass plays (second worst) could not be ignored.
The addition of DeMarcus Walker at edge rusher was not enough. The Bears hope for growth in defensive ends Trevis Gipson and Dominique Robinson, but needed to take a big swing on a player who could be dropped in, adapt and produce quickly. Ngakoue did that in Minnesota (finishing as the Vikings’ sack leader in 2020 in six games), Baltimore, Las Vegas and Indianapolis.
The Bears are eager to see if he can raise the ceiling of their entire defensive line.
“He’s full tilt when he practices, and he keeps himself in great shape,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “To be really good and effective in pass rushing, you’ve got to bring it and you’ve got to bring it every single down. You can’t take a play off and that takes being in great shape, and you’ve got to have that mentality.”
For perspective, there were 27 individual defensive linemen with more than seven sacks last season, including Ngakoue with the Colts. Chicago got 7.5 from its entire group of defensive linemen combined. The Bears were led in sacks by then-rookie safety Jaquan Brisker (4).
Chicago’s secondary won’t have to overcompensate like it did in 2022, if they have a formidable pass rush to lean on.
“That’s a huge difference,” safety Eddie Jackson said. “You know when you got that rush, the quarterback ain’t got the time to sit back there and pat the ball all day. … Just to have that pressure up front, man, it helps us a lot in the back end. We get to capitalize off of that as well.”
Of course, Ngakoue can’t do it on his own. The rotation along the defensive line — which Eberflus says the Pro Bowler will be part of more than on pass-rushing downs, despite deficiencies against the run — relies on the production of others.
That’s where Walker’s career-high seven sacks he had with Tennessee last year come into play. For Robinson, who worked with 14-year NFL veteran edge rusher Robert Mathis this offseason, growth is pivotal to the team’s success up front.
“We needed to set edges better,” Williams said. “We needed to rush the passer better. Win our one-on-ones, play with more violence in terms of when we are running our run stunts and our games to be more physical. One other thing is excellence in the details.”
The Bears’ subtractions in 2022 were part of the beginning stages of the team’s rebuild. The tone has changed this season with additions across the defense. The Bears brought in Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards to lead at linebacker. They drafted cornerbacks Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith to fortify the secondary.
And now they have the top free agent pass-rusher to elevate a unit from the basement of the NFL.