One of the biggest parts of the predraft scouting process has arrived as teams are getting a close look at many of the senior prospects at the 2014 Senior Bowl this week.
Unlike last week's East-West Shrine Game, there are a number of top prospects in this game. While players who expect to be top 20 picks typically skip this part of the process—fearing injury or hurting their draft stock—there are several other prospects who greatly improve their stock with performances in the practices leading up to the game.
The Bears enter this offseason needing help on every level of their defense and they're getting a good look at players who could start for them next season.
One thing that appears clear is a change in defensive philosophy. The Bears have run a one-gap Tampa 2 scheme ever since Lovie Smith came in 2004. A decade later, change is coming.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker failed to adapt to the scheme last season and appears to be doing things a bit differently this year. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bears hired Paul Pasqualoni and Reggie Herring to their coaching staff. Herring is expected to be the linebacker coach and Pasqualoni could be coaching their defensive line, although that has yet to be stated publicly.
Both coaches have extensive backgrounds in 3-4 defenses and Tucker coordinated a 3-4 defense under Romeo Crennel in 2008. Although they haven't stated anything yet—for obvious reasons—it's a good bet that the Bears will run a hybrid defense, if not a full switch to a 3-4, next season.
That could change the scouting process for the Bears going forward. As they prepare at the Senior Bowl, here are a few things to keep an eye out for.
One of the things the Bears really lacked on all levels of their defense was physicality. That's something Ahmad Dixon could change on the back end.
The Baylor senior is the third highest rated safety by Scouts Inc. (subscription required) with the top two—Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Six and Louisville's Calvin Pryor—likely to go in the first round. The Bears might be able to get Dixon in the second round and he's likely to start from the first day of training camp on.
Dixon is rated as "average" in nearly all aspects of coverage by Scouts Inc. (Subscription required), but "exceptional" in run support.
Another safety to watch is Washington State's Deone Bucannon. He's listed ninth by Scouts Inc., but they don't have any scouting information on him.
Bucannon was listed among former NFL safety and current B/R writer Matt Bowen's "stand out players." Bowen said he could "get off the numbers in Cover 2 and can also drop down into the box to play the run."
A large part of why the Bears run defense was so bad was that their safeties constantly took bad angles. When a safety takes a bad angle in a one-gap defense, it will almost always lead to a big gain for the opposing team.
Neither Bucannon nor Dixon alone will solve the Bears' problems on defense. They still have a ton of holes, but if they get one safety who can fill in on run support and maybe even blitz once in a while, it'll allow the other safety to patrol the middle of the field.
A huge part of any successful defense is their ability to make the opposing quarterback uncomfortable. Ford may not have a set position, but he should be able to do that.
Ford is listed as a defensive end by Scouts Inc. (subscription required), where they have him as the 10th best player at that position. Others see him as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or some sort of hybrid player.
The only certainty is that he's been very hard to block in the Senior Bowl practices.
Ford checked in at just over 6'2" and 240 pounds, which is likely too small to be an every-down defensive end, but could be perfect for a hybrid defense. His lack of size and position could make him drop when the draft comes around, but players who can get after the quarterback are always worth taking early.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the process goes for Ford. The Bears typically like to take physical freaks. If he works out as well as he has performed this week, he could get himself into the first round.
Hageman is an enigma in this draft, but he's the kind of player who can fit multiple schemes.
In the NFL he could play the 5-technique in a base 3-4 defense and move inside on passing downs. Or, he could be a 3-technique in a base 4-3. There are a number of options, which help his draft stock.
It's hard to get over the lack of productivity, however. He tallied just 10 sacks and 24 tackles for loss during his collegiate career.
While he's ranked fourth amongst the defensive tackles on Scouts Inc. (subscription required), the highest any of NFL.com's mock draft projections have him is 24th, and B/R's Matt Miller had him as the 35th best player in the draft.
It appears highly unlikely that the Bears would use the 14th pick on Hageman; however, he can change that if he dominates the Senior Bowl and works out well. There doesn't appear to be any doubt about the talent he has, but he needs it to translate onto the field.
The Senior Bowl could be a very big game for him.
With the future of cornerback Charles Tillman uncertain and the current hype being about big cornerbacks, the Bears could take a long look at Jean-Baptiste.
The Nebraska product checked in at over 6'2" and 215 pounds and with Richard Sherman—listed at 6'3", 195 pounds—making the play that clinched a Super Bowl trip for the Seahawks, the wheels of NFL scouts are turning when it comes to Jean-Baptiste.
Jean-Baptiste isn't going to be a first-round pick and maybe not even a second-rounder. He's the 24th-rated cornerback on Scouts Inc. (subscription required), but he caught the eye of former NFL safety and current B/R writer Matt Bowen.
Like Sherman, Jean-Baptiste entered college as a receiver and was converted to cornerback. He had six interceptions—two returned for touchdowns—the last two seasons.
He'll likely need a lot of coaching, but the Bears have one of the best defensive backs coaches in the business in Jon Hoke. Hoke helped turn Tim Jennings into a Pro Bowl player and got a solid performance from after-thought Zackary Bowman this past season. Jean-Baptiste could be quite a project for him, but if he's able to coach him up, the Bears could get a steal.
On the surface, Donald might not be a great fit if the Bears switch to a 3-4 or hybrid defense, but he may be too good to pass up.
Donald was simply dominant in college, recording 29.5 sacks and 66 tackles for loss, and that dominance has continued to Senior Bowl week where he has drawn raves from just about everyone in attendance.
He would be a perfect fit as a 3-technique if the Bears stay in a Cover 2 scheme, but great players fit any scheme and that may be the case here.
In his predraft press conference last year, Bears general manager Phil Emery made it very clear that it's about the players and not the schemes.
At under 6'1" and 288 pounds, the consensus seems to be that Donald needs to be in a base 4-3 defense, but that may not be reality.
Green Bay's Mike Daniels is very similar in size and he just finished a very productive season as a 5-technique for the Packers, notching 6.5 sacks. The Seahawks play a hybrid defense with the 6'1", 311-pound Brandon Mebane starting on their defensive line.
Donald has dominated every part of the scouting process so far. If he continues to do so, the Bears may end up looking hard at him with their first-round pick.