The Chicago Bears' 2013 season was nothing if not a mixed bag. For the first time in recent memory, the offense thrived while the defense faltered miserably. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Bears had the seventh best offense in the NFL this season, falling only narrowly behind such offensive powerhouses as Green Bay and Dallas.
The Bears defense, on the other hand, was abysmal, a painfully obvious conclusion for any casual NFL follower. To put into perspective just how bad the Bears defense was this year, last year's historically bad New Orleans defense received a composite defensive score from Pro Football Focus of -93.4. The much-maligned Washington and Dallas defenses this year received similar scores of -94.4 and -98.5 respectively.
Chicago's defensive score this year: -186.4.
GM Phil Emery was quick to make some key re-signings this offseason, locking up Jay Cutler, Tim Jennings and Matt Slauson to front-loaded deals that will provide the kind of flexibility GMs love to have on the back-end of contracts. However, what that means for this offseason is that there is little wiggle room to remake the defense through free agent signings.
A large percentage of the Bears core defense is still up in the air, with Henry Melton, Corey Wootton, Jeremiah Ratliff, Charles Tillman, James Anderson, D.J. Williams, Zack Bowman and Major Wright all free agents, along with a number of reserves and situational players.
William Caulton of Bleacher Report does a nice job of breaking down the Bears' cap situation, so I won't rehash the nitty-gritty of it here. Suffice it to say that the draft is going to be more important to the Bears this year than in most.
If the Bears are going to be able to take advantage of the outstanding offense their brass has recruited and molded, the defense is going to have to improve quickly. With limited funds to spend on free agents, the Bears will have to hope to land some day-one starters and instant playmakers early in the draft.
Any thought to drafting for the offense in the first round should be discarded—there are too many needs on defense to justify an offensive selection. So, without further preamble, here are 10 prospects the Bears must consider in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, plus five second-round selections who could provide first-round impact.
Khalil Mack projects most naturally as a blitzing 4-3 outside linebacker, a la Von Miller or the role James Harrison has embraced with the Bengals. Scheme 3-4 teams will also be deeply interested, as Mack's greatest trait is his ability to get to the quarterback.
However, his coverage skills, speed and athleticism are such that 4-3 teams are sure to fall in love with his entire skill set throughout the evaluation process and will likely see a higher ceiling than teams that run a 3-4 defense.
This breed of linebacker isn't necessarily synonymous with the Bears defense. Typically, Chicago prefers that its linebackers possess excellent speed and coverage skills, with a stronger than average run-stopping ability as the cherry on top.
The Bears pass rush situation is sure to make things more fluid as Emery puts his eye to providing a facelift to the Bears defense.
With Shea McClellin a bust as a 4-3 defensive end and talk about his possible move to linebacker, including this from James Neveau of NBC Chicago, Julius Peppers' potential exit from Chicago and Henry Melton's return questionable after a torn ACL, rethinking the role of Chicago's linebackers and adding a pass rush specialist might be an appealing notion come draft day.
If he drops to 14, Chicago will definitely consider adding Mack and his well-rounded skill set.
Presently, Stephon Tuitt is not projected to go in the first-half of the first round by CBS Sports' Rob Rang and Dane Brugler, but these things change weekly. One thing that won't likely change is Tuitt's status as a top-five defensive end prospect. Workouts will be important in determining exactly where Tuitt will fall, but he will be somebody the Bears scout heavily.
Like Mack, Tuitt isn't necessarily a natural fit with the current Bears defense. His massive size (6'6", 312 pounds) situates him more comfortably as an end in a 3-4 scheme, while many 4-3 teams (including the Bears) will consider him as a 3-technique defensive tackle.
However, thinking outside the box in trying to remake the defense, Emery may like the idea of having a big-bodied pass-rusher with run-stuffing skills on one end of the line. With developmental ends Davis Bass and Cornelius Washington both being smaller, more athletic speed rushers, the Bears may feel comfortable considering Tuitt as a complementary power end in addition to his ability to play inside.
If nothing else, this pick could provide flexibility in rebuilding a defensive line that was likely the worst in the entire NFL this past season.
Like Tuitt, Scott Crichton is a defensive end who isn't yet projected to go this high. However, after a dominant junior season, Crichton has already seen his stock rise considerably since the season ended. The strength of his game lies in his burst off the line and his relentless motor, both attributes which will be sure to impress scouts during the evaluation process. He is a top candidate who will continue to rise up the draft boards as the draft looms closer.
Unlike Tuitt, Crichton is a natural fit as a 4-3 defensive end. At a well-built 6'3", 265 pounds, Crichton is more than capable of using both speed and power against NFL tackles, and his high motor is something that will surely appeal to a Bears' brass that witnessed its defensive line's failure to get to the quarterback week after week in 2013.
The will-he-or-won't-he question enveloping Henry Melton's offseason status may play an important role in the Bears draft plans.
Melton was looking to cash in a big contract last offseason before he was slapped with the franchise tag. While there is a vocal contingency of Bears fans on the internet who think he should be allowed to walk due to the nature of his injury, Emery will likely have a different perspective than the reductionist rationale that would send him packing without a second thought.
First off, Melton's injury is definitely a worrisome scenario, which means he won't be able to demand as much money in negotiating a contract. Additionally, from Emery's perspective, the 2013 season was woefully devoid of meaningful playmakers on the defense.
If there is even a chance that the 2012 Melton could return to the field in 2014, particularly at a discounted rate, Emery may find the greater risk to be letting a young impact player walk from a defense lacking any stability on the interior of the defensive line.
With that said, if Melton's self-appraisal proves too costly for the Bears, Emery will almost certainly be looking for an interior pass-rusher early in the draft.
Ra'Shede Hageman fits the bill nicely. At 6'6" and weighing 318 pounds, Hageman is a 3-technique tackle with tremendous strength and surprising speed. He is more naturally-suited to play on the interior than similarly-sized Tuitt, while he also had a more consistently disruptive 2013 season in college football.
Cornerback has proven a popular position for draft analysts to mock for the Bears after Charles Tillman hinted that he might not be back with Chicago in 2013. The truth is, whether or not Tillman is retained, the Bears need to address their secondary sooner rather than later. If Tillman can be retained on the cheap, he definitely should be.
In truth, too much blame is being cast upon the entire secondary for their performance in 2013, but the natural trickle-down effect of defenses was not felt this year in Chicago. A definite correlation can be drawn between the defensive line play (ability to rush the passer, stop the run, disrupt the game plan of the offense, etc.) and the ability of the secondary to reach its ceiling.
So while the Bears starting safeties were the league's worst according to PFF and their cornerbacks all under-performed, this doesn't mean Tillman is too far gone as a solid starting corner next year. However, even if retained, he would be a declining corner on the downswing of his career, and an heir should still be drafted this year.
On that note, enter Justin Gilbert. While he may not be the best lockdown corner in the draft, he has good size (6'0", 200 pounds) and may present the best combination of athleticism and coverage skills at the position.
A first-team All-American, Gilbert led the Big 12 in interceptions in 2013, displaying superb ball skills and good breaks. An added bonus that might appeal to the Bears, particularly if Devin Hester walks this offseason, is Gilbert's return ability, as he returned six kickoffs for touchdowns during his career at Oklahoma State.
It could be a long time before Bears fans forgive and forget Chris Conte's blunder against the Packers in the final minute of their win-and-in regular-season finale. But statistically Major Wright graded out even worse this season according to Pro Football Focus. How bad, you ask? Wright finished the season as the league's worst safety of the 86 who played at least 25 percent of his team's defensive snaps.
Conte finished the season as the 82nd-ranked safety in the league. While both safeties were, unsurprisingly, awful against the run (they rank as the bottom two in the league), Conte was far better in coverage, despite his monstrous gaffe in the Packers game.
Certainly a large deal of this is attributable to the Bears' inability to stuff runs and the safeties being forced into making far more tackles against running backs out of the box than most safeties in the league. At the very least, one replacement will be needed to step in for Wright, who likely won't be retained.
The top safety in this year's draft is Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, a relatively complete player whose high floor should appeal to an organization looking for some youth and stability in its secondary. Clinton-Dix possesses solid coverage skills, plays physically and has demonstrated an ability and willingness to wrap up nicely on tackles.
While he doesn't necessarily possess the polish of some top-tier safety talents from recent draft classes, he has the ability to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber player and should be able to start from Day 1 in the NFL.
Yet another defensive end the Bears will consider in the first round is fast riser Kony Ealy. After breaking out during his sophomore season, Ealy came on strong in 2013 to register 9.5 sacks for Missouri. What has scouts most excited, however, is Ealy's ceiling. The flip side of that notion is that Ealy is a bit of a raw prospect, albeit one who made great strides from 2012 to 2013. His combination of size, speed and pass-rushing moves will have teams salivating over his potential.
For the Bears, one concern will be his run-stopping ability, a relative weakness for an otherwise dominant end. He is far better as a pass-rusher at this stage in his career. For a Bears team that was historically bad against the run, this might be a red flag.
However, the Bears pass rush in 2013 was lacking considerably as well, and with the frame (6'5", 275 lbs.) to become a dominant run-stuffer off the end, his upside may ultimately be too much for the Bears to pass up.
While Justin Gilbert offers the big-play ability from the corner position, Darqueze Dennard made a strong statement this year to be considered the draft's top lockdown corner. Like Gilbert, Dennard offers nice size at the position (5'11", 197 lbs.), something that may matter more to the Bears than other teams considering their other starting outside corner stands at only 5'8".
When you're playing Calvin Johnson and facing a quarterback with the placement ability of Aaron Rodgers twice a year, it's always nice to have someone who can go up and make a play on the ball with consistency.
Dennard offers few downsides. He would fit nicely into Chicago's man defense and projects as a corner who can play with success at the NFL level from Day 1. However, if the Bears end up re-signing Tillman, or if they find themselves smitten with a second-day cornerback prospect, they may choose to address the defensive line or safety positions in the first round instead.
While the aforementioned Ra'Shede Hageman may provide the best option if the Bears end up looking to replace Henry Melton in the 3-gap, Louis Nix III is the best option to play the 1-technique if Melton is retained.
Nix offers considerable upside as both a pass-rusher and a run-stuffer on the interior of the Bears line. Stephen Paea wasn't terrible this season at the 1-technique, considering the Bears run-stopping woes, but this will likely be his last year in Chicago unless he makes great strides. Finding someone to potentially and likely replace him will be Emery's focus if Melton is retained.
Indeed, even if Melton walks, Corey Wootton's performance after being shifted to the interior of the line this past season may be enough inspire confidence in his future as a 3-technique tackle. In either scenario, a big-bodied nose tackle like Nix (6'2", 357 pounds) would be at the fore of the Bears' draft interests.
Though Nix displayed a tendency to disappear for periods of games this past season, he absorbs double teams, capably gets into the backfield against the run, demonstrates surprising quickness and athleticism for his size and uses his hands well. His considerable strengths should be enough to get the attention of a Bears team desperate for defensive tackle help.
The Bears linebacking corps was a mixed bag in 2013. D.J. Williams was playing well until his season-ending injury, while Lance Briggs missed a big chunk of the season after fracturing his shoulder in week 7. James Anderson, on the other hand, struggled mightily all season, specifically against the run.
Anderson actually graded out (PFF, subscription required) very well in coverage, ranking sixth among 4-3 outside linebackers who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps. Against the run, he was dead last in the league amongst same demographic.
Rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, despite their struggles, present a case for cautious optimism. Bostic, like most Bears defenders this past season, was pitiful in run defense. But, a lot of that can also be attributed to the tackles' inability to absorb blocks. Bostic often found himself shooting the wrong gap, but he displayed solid tackling nonetheless.
An improved defensive line could do wonders for his play, particularly considering his surprising success in coverage as a rookie. Greene, on the other hand, struggled a bit both in coverage and against the run, but far less than most Bears linebackers. His performance likely has the powers that be hopeful about his continued development, perhaps even into a starter in the coming years.
All of the question marks surrounding the position will mean that Emery will once more be on the lookout for linebacking talent in the draft. C.J. Mosley is a well-rounded linebacker who could provide the Bears defense with stability and flexibility. Though he is better in coverage, his run support improved dramatically in 2013, while his ability to diagnose a play and respond quickly is first rate.
He also has the ability to play both inside and outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, meaning Bostic could potentially move to outside linebacker, which could ultimately be a more natural fit for him. In either case, adding Mosley could solidify the Bears linebacking corps as one of the most promising and talented young groups in the league.
Lamarcus Joyner, CB/S, Florida State
Joyner is an undersized defensive back who has improved every season at Florida State. He plays fast and physical, displays excellent ball skills and projects as a player who could start as either a cornerback or a safety in the NFL. His size might not be appealing to the Bears who already start one 5'8" corner in Tim Jennings, but the flexibility he offers a shaky Bears secondary should.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Donald is a quick, athletic 3-technique tackle who could fill Melton's shoes if he leaves via free agency. Donald is undersized at 6'0", 285 pounds, but he already finds his draft stock in ascension after impressing during Senior Bowl practices this week according Vic Ketchman of Packers.com. With a chip on his shoulder and a high motor, Donald could be a steal in the second round.
Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi St.
Jackson is currently projected to go lower than this, but expect his stock to rise throughout the process. He is a big-bodied mauler of a guard who doesn't play flashy but has impressed year after year, much in the same vein as last year's draft standout Larry Warford. While the Bears offensive line was improved this season, it still had too many struggles, notably at right tackle.
Jordan Mills was only a rookie, so he will probably be given another year to prove himself. The addition of Jackson, though, could provide the flexibility to move Kyle Long to right tackle sooner rather than later.
Deone Bucannon, SS, Washington State
With Major Wright's likely departure, the Bears will look to fill his shoes with a similarly hard-hitting safety who possesses better coverage ability. Bucannon fits that description nicely. Though he can come up into the box and smack a runner, Bucannon does more of his work in open space. He tackles nicely, closes distances quickly and is capable of putting the hurt on receivers coming over the middle.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Another offensive player the Bears should consider in the second round is Brandin Cooks, the shifty slot receiver out of Oregon State. Though Cooks is likely to be off the board by the Bears' pick, he has to be considered if he's available.
Outside of the offensive line, the main thing missing from the Bears offense is a dynamic slot receiver to take the attention away from Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall on the outside. Earl Bennett is likely to be cut this offseason, but an upgrade was needed anyway thanks to his inconsistency and frequent injuries.
Marc Trestman has done enough with Cutler to inspire trust from the Bears fanbase, and if he can go the extra mile and help Cutler see the benefit of slants, slot receivers and the like, then Emery has to consider giving him a quality weapon like Cooks to utilize.