Chicago's Rookie Class Could Push Well-Paid Veterans

A BCorrespondent IMay 8, 2009

LAKE FOREST, IL - MAY 01: (L-R) Dave Peck #75, Marcus Freeman #58, Jarron Gilbert#73 and Al Afalava #46 of the Chicago Bears participate in a special teams drill during a rookie mini-camp practice on May 1, 2009 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As the Chicago Bears rolled through day two of the NFL Draft a few weeks ago, one thing became abundantly clear: the veterans were going to have a rookie class biting at their heels all year long.

One of the team's biggest recent criticisms is the lack of performance from their well-paid star defense players.  Many people feel that Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye, and Nathan Vasher are not playing up to their contracts.

That, however, could soon change.

The Bears added bodies at every defensive position in the draft; Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton on the defensive line, Marcus Freeman at linebacker, D.J. Moore at cornerback, and Al Afalava at safety.

But what does that mean for the incumbents?

Tommie Harris, for starters, will have to deal with Jarron Gilbert competing for playing time.

Brad Briggs of the Chicago Sun-Times broke down the playing time of the defensive linemen this week, and indicated that Harris played just over 56 perfect of the team's defensive snaps.  

That number is low because Harris has been largely injured for the past three seasons. Although he has proven that he can be a Pro Bowl defensive tackle with one good leg, it doesn't guarantee that he will be healthy enough to step onto the field when the Bears need him the most.

Given the injury history of Harris and the heavy rotation that the Bears have a tendency to use on the line, Gilbert could easily see the most playing time of team's entire rookie class.

Henry Melton, on the the other hand, may have to wait for one season at the bottom of the depth chart.

Melton is clearly a future investment, with defensive ends Adewale Ogunleye, Mark Anderson, and Israel Idonije all heading into contract years. It's hard to imagine that the Bears would bring back all three, especially considering Ogunleye's age and Anderson's drop-off in production.

Nonetheless, Melton is a young body who will push his teammates and compete for a starting job down the road.

While Marcus Freeman and Al Afalava will likely start their NFL careers as part of Dave Toub's special teams unit, cornerback D.J. Moore could see considerable action in a number of ways.

Nathan Vasher has been a non-factor on the field for the past two seasons, more so than any of his teammates who saw a big payday. In fact, "The Interceptor," as he became to be known, only managed one interception last season and the same number the previous year.

Jerry Angelo seems to have a knack for picking defensive backs throughout all rounds of the draft, and those defensive backs have a history of contributing early in their careers—especially as rookies.

D.J. Moore's advantage is that he could fill a number of roles depending on how the current uncertainty in the secondary shakes out. Moore could supplant Vasher if Vasher truly has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.  

He could move up the chart if Corey Graham is converted to a free safety, or he could move to nickel corner and return kicks if Danieal Manning shifts back to free safety. Or he could return punts if Devin Hester's production as a receiver increases. And, like all of Chicago's deep-on-the-chart defensive backs, he could wind up on the kick coverage units.

As training camp arrives and passes, we will have a better idea of where the rookies will contribute.  If the past few seasons have been any indication, we will see a significant impact from several of them.  But unlike years past, the team's current stars could also wind up feeling the effects of the youngsters.