Bears 2022 DL review: Justin Jones a standout on struggling interior

The Chicago Bears wrapped the 2022 season with a 3-14 record, which culminated in a 10-game losing streak. But there’s still reasons to be optimistic about the future, including a boatload of salary cap space, the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft and the emergence of quarterback Justin Fields.

Here at Bears Wire, we’re going position by position through the 2022 Bears and grading every player. Next up is the interior defensive line, which was one of the biggest weaknesses on the roster.

Justin Jones: B

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Season stats: 52 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 7 QB hits, 4 pass breakups, 1 fumble recovery (17 games, 17 starts)

Justin Jones was the only player along the defensive interior worth bringing back in 2023. And he wasn’t even Plan A. Jones was signed after Larry Ogunjobi’s failed physical in the offseason, but he provided consistency to the team’s weakest position group. Jones served as the three-technique in Matt Eberflus’ defense, one of the most important positions, and he was solid. Jones led the Bears in tackles for loss and was second in QB hits. He even garnered praise from GM Ryan Poles for his consistency and playmaking ability. While Chicago will likely look to find a superstar at 3-tech this offseason, you have to figure Jones will still play a key role on next year’s defensive line.

Armon Watts: C+

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Season stats: 35 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 QB hits (17 games, 12 starts)

Armon Watts was claimed off waivers after being cut from the Vikings before the season, where he served as a mainstay along the defensive interior. Watts, who joined the team just before the start of the season, quickly beat out Angelo Blackson for the starting job opposite Justin Jones. But Watts didn’t have a banner year, as his production was down along a weak defensive line. Still, with Watts hitting free agency, the Bears could certainly look to bring him bac as a rotational piece and depth for Eberflus’ defense.

Mike Pennel: C

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Season stats: 26 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 QB hits, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery (17 games, 2 starts)

Mike Pennel served as a key rotational piece along the defensive interior this season, where he had some nice moments in limited snaps. Pennel’s best game of the season came against the Eagles, where he had two solo tackles, two pass breakups and a forced fumble on only 22 snaps. He also earned a 93.1 grade by PFF. Pennel is slated to hit the free agent market, and he’s definitely someone the Bears could bring back as key depth and a rotational piece on defense.

Angelo Blackson: D

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Season stats: 22 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 QB hit, 1 pass breakup (15 games, 4 starts)

Angelo Blackson entered the 2022 season as the starter alongside Justin Jones. But that lasted all but three games before he was beat out for the job by newcomer Armon Watts. While Balckson was a key contributor in the previous two seasons, he wasn’t a scheme fit at all on defense. There were even a couple of times where he was a healthy scratch this season. With Blackson hitting free agency, he’s not expected back — although he’ll still be on the books for $500,000 in 2023.

INCOMPLETE: Andrew Brown, Jalyn Holmes

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Andrew Brown and Jayln Holmes weren’t significant factors this season, and they were elevated to the active roster due to injuries. They combined to appear in six games this season (Brown: 5, Holmes: 1), so there isn’t really a big enough sample size to evaluate them. Holmes was a mainstay on the practice squad all season until the season finale against the Vikings. Meanwhile, Brown was signed off the Cardinals’ practice squad ahead of Week 13.

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Story originally appeared on Bears Wire