While the NFL's two Super Bowl teams will be determined on Sunday, on Saturday all eyes will be on the East-West Shrine game as teams get ready for the NFL draft in May. That holds especially true for a team like the Bears, which desperately need to get impact players from this year's draft.
With the draft flooded with so many underclassmen, the all-star games don't hold as much value. That said, this is where a lot of lesser-known players make their mark and become steals late in the draft.
The Shrine Game doesn't have a lot of top prospects and likely won't have a player drafted in the first round. But there are several players who could be key picks late in the draft and serve as key pieces in rebuilding the Bears' defense.
While the most important thing for the Bears may be to hit on their early picks, they also need to get impact players late in the draft if they're going to rebuild their defense. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have gotten early picks to pan out but also managed steals late to help build their defense.
The great Bears' defenses of past years included guys taken after the first two rounds such as Lance Briggs, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton, among others.
Here are a few things to look for:
Rebuilding the defense starts up front
The Bears finished the 2013 season with the worst run defense in the league, and it may have been worse than the numbers indicated.
With some injuries on the interior of their defensive line and at linebacker, the Bears didn't have a clue about how to attack the run game. They struggled holding up at the point of attack and with gap discipline. It was truly an embarrassment.
The solution may not be in this draft, but that doesn't mean they can't get some help.
While we know the Bears will be retaining Mel Tucker as their defensive coordinator, they have yet to give any word about what kind of scheme they will run. A move to a conventional 3-4 defense is highly unlikely, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see them run a hybrid scheme. The Bears more than likely will draft players they would have passed on in years past.
One of those players could be Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Justin Ellis. Ellis checked in at 6'1.5" and 351 pounds and could give the Bears an immovable object in the middle of their defense.
Much of the early hype is about Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III as the top 0-Technique in the draft, but if the Bears want to get a space-eater much later in the draft, Ellis could be their guy. He isn't as athletic as Nix, but if he can hold his ground, he'd be a big upgrade over what the Bears had last season.
A player such as West Virginia's Will Clarke could also interest the Bears. Clarke was ranked as the third best prospect in the game by Dane Brugler of CBS Sports. He checked in at 6-6, 277 pounds and could seemingly play multiple positions along the defensive line depending on the scheme.
Cassius Marsh of UCLA could also be an interesting name if the Bears decide to stick with a 4-3 alignment.
These probably aren't the kind of players the Bears can build their defensive line around, but they could end up contributing as rookies for a team that badly needs more solid players.
Keep an eye on the cornerbacks
Whether or not the team brings back unrestricted free agent Charles Tillman, the Bears should be keeping a close eye on the cornerbacks in this game.
Good cornerbacks can be found late in the draft, and there are a few interesting prospects.
If he has a good showing in the Shrine Game, he could lock into that position and possibly become a Day 1 starter in the NFL.
A more raw, but possibly better prospect, is Pierre Desir of Lindenwood.
Detroit Lions featured columnist and RealGM draft writer Jeff Risdon predicted Desir would be the first prospect from the Shrine Game taken in the draft, saying "Corners his size with his feet don’t come along very readily, and NFL teams will value that, even if he doesn’t have great speed." Risdon isn't alone in his opinion.
Desir may be more of a developmental prospect, but that's what many thought about Tillman when he entered the league.
Don't ignore the offense
While the Bears figure to spend most of their assets on rebuilding their defense, that doesn't mean they will—or should—ignore the offense.
While they finished the season ranked second in points per game, the Bears still have some holes on offense. They could certainly use a second tight end as well as some young depth along the offensive line.
A player such as Baylor tight end Jordan Najvar could be someone they look at late in the draft. At 6'5" 262 pounds, he could be a good red zone target. His hands caught the eye of Risdon at practice this week.
Another player who could be interesting is Bowling Green's Alex Bayer. At 6'4", some project Bayer as an H-back, but he also checked in at 258 pounds, so he could have the strength to hold up as a blocker. Rotoworld's Josh Norris noted that Bayer "wins" when blocking in-line, and he could fill the role they envisioned for Dante Rosario this season.
There are also six centers in this year's game. With offensive coordinator/line coach Aaron Kromer's history of developing late-round offensive line prospects as well as the age and contract status of incumbent starter Roberto Garza, the centers will be worth watching.
This is just one part of the process
It's really tempting to watch an all-star game and make snap judgments, but a lot more goes into the scouting process.
The Bears, in particular, seem to put a lot of stock in individual workouts. In the past few years, we've seen them spend picks on players who are more athletes than football players. Last year's first-round selection Kyle Long had just one season of Division 1 football under his belt. The year before, Shea McClellin launched himself into the first round thanks to his athleticism.
Emery has spent other picks on athletes who are far from from finished products. Guys like Cornelius Washington, Evan Rodriguez and Brandon Hardin were drafted more for what they showed in the workouts than what they put on tape.
An athletic player may struggle in an all-star game setting, but teams often feel their coaches can get the most out of them.
In most cases, teams have a couple years worth of tape on each player that they'll put more stock in than their performance in an all-star game. The MVP of last year's game—wide receiver Chad Bumphis—didn't even get drafted.
That said, if a player stands out, he may make everyone take notice—and go back for another look at his tape.
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