2013 was an up-and-down year for the Chicago Bears. The team started out of the gate quickly with three wins, struggled with losing key players but still found themselves with an opportunity to win the division during the final week of the season.
The Bears ultimately lost to the Green Bay Packers, and their struggles this season proved how much this team lacks depth.
Obviously we need to improve as a defense. We had a lot of tough days defensively and a we had a tough season. There are no excuses for it. I know our fans are frustrated. I know everybody in this city is frustrated. This team is frustrated.
One of the cheapest ways of finding depth is through the draft. Emery has already proven he can find very good offensive players in the draft (Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long), but he will have to prove he has the ability to find good defensive players that can contribute positively in their first season.
Here is our ranking of the Chicago Bears' top five draft needs.
Few would argue that the Bears' biggest need this offseason is a consistent pass-rusher. While the future of Julius Peppers in Chicago still remains a question mark, the team will likely spend a high draft pick on someone who has the ability to get after the quarterback.
The biggest name out there for pass-rushers in this draft is Jadeveon Clowney, but the likelihood of him slipping to the Bears at No. 14 is slim to none. The next potential target could be Missouri's Kony Ealy.
The first thing that jumps out when watching film on Early is his explosiveness. He used that explosiveness off the edge to register 14 sacks in 38 career games for the Tigers. His terrific first step and spin move made some of the best tackles in the SEC look silly at times, but he will need to work on lowering his pad level and disengaging better in the run game.
If the Bears are unable to land Ealy, the level of pass-rushers drops off precipitously. Oregon State's Scott Crichton or Stanford's Trent Murphy could be viable options, but they wouldn't have much value until the second or third round.
Crichton is versatile, having played both right and left defensive end as well as inside at defensive tackle on passing plays, but he needs to work on his strength as he too often looked to get overpowered by stronger linemen.
Murphy is quick and athletic and led all of the NCAA FBS Division in sacks with 15 in 2013 but is viewed as somewhat of a "tweener"—situated between a hand-in-the-ground defensive end and pass-rushing outside linebacker, similar to what the team already has in Shea McClellin.
A pass-rusher may be the most important position that the Bears will covet in this year's draft, but unfortunately, if they cannot get to a guy like Ealy, they may have to wait until later in the draft to find value at the position.
As important as finding a pass-rusher will be in this year's draft, finding a defensive tackle will be a close second.
The defensive tackle position was decimate by injuries, most notably Henry Melton and Nate Collins, who were both lost for the season. Defensive end/tackle Turk McBride was lost for the season during training camp, and Sedrick Ellis decided to retire without ever reporting to training camp, leaving the position in trouble before the season even started.
Because of the injuries and lack of depth, the Bears were forced into playing relative unknowns like Christian Tupou, Zach Minter and Landon Cohen at different times in 2013.
As important as finding a pass-rusher will be for the Bears, they may jump at the chance to draft one of the many talented defensive tackles near the top of the draft.
Minnesota Golden Gopher Ra'Shede Hageman has quickly been rising up draft boards and may be too hard for the Bears to pass up on at No. 14. He has the ability to play both the nose tackle or 3-technique in a 4-3 defense and has a lot of untapped potential.
Despite his incredible athleticism and strengths against both the run and the pass, he has failed to have a truly dominate game against top-level talent. If put in the right situation with a good defensive line coach, Hageman has the ability to become an elite defensive tackle.
A bit undersized at 6'0" and 285 pounds, Pitt's Aaron Donald is another quickly rising defensive tackle. CBS Sports' Dane Brugler said that Donald has been an "unstoppable force" at the Senior Bowl practices this week and showed off his great quickness and aggressiveness. His explosiveness is what has made him such a great player, and despite his smaller size, he still has the potential to be a solid NFL player.
If the Bears wait until later in the draft to select a defensive tackle, LSU's Anthony Johnson could be another solid option. He has quick feet and great athleticism for an interior defensive lineman and could excel as a 3-technique defensive tackle in the NFL if given the time to grow. He is still raw, often playing too high, and he also lacks consistency with his pass rush.
His strength lends well in the run game, and he consistently maintains his gaps but relies too much on pure speed to beat offensive linemen, and that will not always work in the NFL.
With just Stephen Paea signed long-term, the Bears will need to address the defensive tackle position in both free agency and the draft and the position may be one of the strongest in all of the 2014 draft.
Not since the days of Doug Plank and Gary Fencik have the Bears had two consistent starters at the safety position. The one name that comes to mind between then and now is Mike Brown, but he struggled with injuries and was never able to consistently stay on the field.
Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo had a habit of drafting safeties during their tenure in Chicago and ended up drafting guys like Danieal Manning, Kevin Payne, Craig Steltz, Al Afalava, Major Wright, Chris Conte and Brandon Hardin with little-to-no positive results on the field.
Wright and Conte both showed flashes at times, but both struggled mightily in 2013, and it is very unlikely that they will be the starting duo again in 2014. Wright is set to become a free agent, and Conte is still under contract for more season.
In a mock draft earlier this year, I pegged Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Bears with their 14th overall pick.
Clinton-Dix has been described as a prototypical ball-hawking safety as he consistently has a great break on the ball and has good enough hands to haul in interceptions. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller says of Clinton-Dix, "like Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro from the 2013 class, the Alabama safety can step in and make an impact from his first day on the job."
At No. 14, Clinton-Dix may be a bit of stretch for the Bears, but if there is a run on defensive linemen, he could very well be in play.
A name quickly rising up the draft boards is Louisville's Calvin Pryor. He is a hard-hitting safety who has the ability to come up in the box and make tackles as a strong safety but also possesses the athleticism and ball-hawking abilities of a free safety.
Pryor's stock has skyrocketed in recent weeks, and he could work his way into being a late-first-round pick. The Bears likely would taken a chance on him at No. 14, but if they can find a way to trade back in the draft, he could be a possibility.
The Bears have been lucky to have the consistent play of Charles Tillman at cornerback for the past 11 seasons, but his future in Chicago is in question. Tillman told Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune, “I've got some decisions that I have to make here in the next couple of weeks, couple of months and I don't know. I'm just going to see what happens.”
Regardless of whether or not Tillman returns in 2014, the Bears will need to look to get younger at the position through the draft.
Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard is regarded as the best cornerback in this year's draft and could be a possibility for the Bears at No. 14. He is strong and physical and does a nice job of jamming receivers off of the line of scrimmage in man coverage and has played well in zone coverage.
Another option in the early rounds is TCU's Jason Verrett. He has shown great footwork and fluid hips that allow him to turn quickly and make breaks on the football. He plays a physical style of football and is not afraid to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, but his size (5'10", 176 lbs) may scare teams away from drafting him.
If the Bears are looking for a bigger, more physically imposing cornerback, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste could be on their radar. At 6'3" and 215 lbs, he fits the mold of guys like Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.
He does a good job of reading the quarterback and making solid breaks on the football but has struggled as a tackler. He size makes him seem more imposing than he really is, but if put in the right situation, he would have the opportunity to grow as cornerback if he had the right coach developing him.
While the Bears will likely focus most of their attention on defense in the draft, there is still a hole at the center position on offense.
Roberto Garza is slated to become a free agent, and even if the team brings him back in 2014, they need to begin looking for his eventual replacement.
A center is not typically the type of player to go early in the draft, but in recent years guys like Maurkice Pouncey and Travis Frederick have had their names called in the first round.
Travis Swanson is viewed as this year's best center prospect, but the jury is still out on where he may be selected. He is quick and athletic and does a good job of pulling and getting to the second level in the running game. He will need to work on getting stronger at the point of attack, as he has a tendency to lean on his opponent instead of pushing him back.
If he drops in the draft, he could be someone the Bears could target but likely not before the third round.
Another center who could be of interest later in the draft is Colorado State's Weston Richburg. He has underrated athleticism but is often forced to the ground and will need to work on improving his strength. He was extremely durable during his tenure at Colorado State and also showed the versatility to play both guard and tackle.
2013 Rimington Trophy winner for the nation's best center Bryan Stork could also be an option later in the draft. He plays with great pad level, has a good first step and has excelled in both pass protection and the running game. Much like Richburg, he needs to improve his strength and footwork as he, too, tends to end up on the ground more often than he should.
This year's class of centers is hard to predict regarding where the members will be drafted, but if one slips, the Bears may be in position to find tremendous value.