5 Best Options for the Chicago Bears to Bolster the Defensve Line This Offseason
The 2013 season for the Chicago Bears defense was a disappointment compared to the success it had enjoyed in recent seasons.
The Bears were dead last against the run in 2013 and finished 30th in total yards. One big reason for their collapse on defense was injuries, particularly to the defensive line.
Henry Melton and Nate Collins were both lost for the season, forcing relative unknowns like Christian Tupou, Zach Minter and Landon Cohen to all find time in the defensive-line rotation.
For every defense, it all starts up front, and the Bears will look to address their defensive line play this offseason.
Here are five of the best options for the Bears to improve that unit.
Re-Sign Jeremiah Ratliff
More than a year came and went between snaps for Jeremiah Ratliff and during that time he went from a dominating presence for the Dallas Cowboys to a steady contributor for the Bears.
Playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2012, Ratliff suffered a groin injury six games into the season and finished the year on injured reserve. In training camp this season, he was placed on the team's physically unable to perform (PUP) list due to a hamstring injury and was subsequently released on Oct. 16.
The Bears signed the former four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle on Nov. 4 to help shore up their injury-depleted defensive line. He played 23 snaps against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13 in his Bears debut and saw his snap totals increase. He averaged 42 snaps in his five games.
Ratliff's versatility allows him to play both the 3-technique and nose tackle positions and despite the fact that he is 32 years old, he showed he still had plenty left in the tank and could help be a stopgap at the defensive tackle position as the team tries to get younger.
Re-Sign Henry Melton
2012 was a career year for Henry Melton. He finished the season with 32 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles en route to his first career Pro Bowl selection.
The Bears franchise tagged Melton on March 1 for $8.45 million with the hopes of signing him long term but failed to reach a deal before the July 15 deadline.
He had a solid training camp and was looking to build off his 2012 success but suffered a torn ACL in late September and was placed on the season-ending injured reserved list.
Melton was subsequently arrested before Christmas in Texas and charged with assault and public intoxication.
General manager Phil Emery addressed Melton's situation last week, telling Dan Wiederer and Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, "Obviously, he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure that he's focused on football and having a passion for football."
When healthy and devoted to his craft, Melton has been disruptive at the defensive tackle position, and at times in 2013 the Bears defense looked lost without him.
Considering that Melton is still rehabbing his knee injury and the stigma of his recent arrest still lingers, the Bears may be able to re-sign him for far less money than they were previously expecting.
Sign Michael Bennett
"Next year I am trying to get him to come here because he will be a free agent again. So I am selling him already," said Bears tight end Martellus Bennett about his brother Michael early last month on the Boers & Bernstein Show, according to Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune.
Michael Bennett has been a bit of a late bloomer, compiling six sacks during his first three seasons in the league but exploding for 17.5 in the last two seasons.
An undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M, Bennett initially signed with the Seattle Seahawks in 2009 before being waived during the middle of the season and eventually landing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After two solid seasons in Tampa Bay, Michael Bennett signed a one-year deal with Seattle last March for $4.8 million, which included a $1.5 million signing bonus.
Bennett has versatility, having successfully played both inside at defensive tackle and outside at defensive end (think of a younger Israel Idonije) and could help add some experience to a young defensive end group.
The future of Julius Peppers is still up in the air, and money may restrict the team's ability to sign Bennett. But if they cut Peppers the team will have plenty of money to address the defensive end position.
Draft Timmy Jernigan
The Bears lack depth along the defensive line. Along with re-signing Ratliff and Melton and signing Michael Bennett, it would be smart to look for some help in the 2014 draft.
Florida State's Timmy Jernigan has experience playing the 3-technique but has played better at nose tackle during his collegiate career. While at 282 pounds he lacks the ideal size to play nose tackle, he could certainly gain some bulk moving forward.
He does a good job of maintaining his gaps and uses his frame and long arms to move past strong defenders. If he can bulk up, he could give Stephen Paea a run for his money on the interior of the defensive line.
He is classified as a high-motor guy, and while he doesn't necessarily get a lot of sacks, he has shown the ability to be disruptive up the middle and provide pressure on the quarterback.
His first step needs work and he can be erratic at times, but he could develop into a solid rotation player early in his career and add youth to a defensive line that needs to get younger.
Draft Jackson Jeffcoat
Earlier in the week I tabbed Jackson Jeffcoat of the Texas Longhorns to the Bears in the fourth round in my latest mock draft.
Scouting reports and big boards have him ranked all over the place with CBS Sports and NFL Draft Scout listing him as a second round pick and Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has him going in the third round.
Jeffcoat's current size may make him a better option as a standup linebacker in a 3-4 defense, a defense to which the Bears hinted toward changing, but with some added weight, he could be a 4-3 defensive end.
One reason why Jeffcoat could slip to the third round is his lack of strength, and he will need to address that heading into the draft. He has a good first step, plays with gap integrity and shows a stoutness against the run. He has the ability to get to the quarterback but was inconsistent at times in college.
He compares a bit to current Bear Shea McClellin but was far better against the run during his collegiate career. Jeffcoat's frame also seems more suitable than McClellin's in terms of putting on weight.
The Bears may look to address the defensive end position higher in the draft, but if the team can add a defensive end like Michael Bennett, Jeffcoat could learn to develop behind him and Corey Wootton and fight for playing time with David Bass and Cornelius Washington in certain situations.