Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery will arrive at the NFL Scouting Combine this week with defense on his mind, knowing full well that adding help along the defensive line tops his offseason agenda.
There's really no other way to spin the end of Chicago's 2013 season, which saw the offensively dominant Bears finish just 8-8 due to one of the worst defenses in franchise history. As is usually the case in rebuilding a defensive unit, any improvement must begin up front, where the Bears have their strongest need.
Chicago could use upgrades at both defensive end and tackle.
Emery certainly wasn't reserved about his own failures in establishing quality depth on the defensive side of the ball last season, especially along the defensive line.
"I have to look at did we have enough depth to win football games? The answer is no, OK?," Emery said in early January, via Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune. "From a personnel perspective and from my perspective, I had not done enough to provide enough depth."
He was specific about his mistakes up front.
"We were at least one defensive lineman short at the tackle position going into the season," Emery said. "We didn’t have enough pass rush from the outside or the inside."
Bad luck played a role. Season-ending injuries robbed the Bears of standout defensive tackle Henry Melton and his primary backup, Nate Collins. Stephen Paea battled a foot injury for most of the season.
But the Bears also got subpar efforts from Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin, which now leaves Peppers' future up in the air and McClellin looking at a position switch from defensive end to strong side linebacker.
The need along the defensive line is urgent. With Melton, Collins, Jeremiah Ratliff and Corey Wootton all set to hit free agency—and the possibility of Peppers eventually joining them—the Bears will likely need to use a combination of the draft and free agency to replenish an inadequate front that contributed to Chicago's meltdown last season.
Overall, the Bears defense finished dead last in the NFL in yards per play (6.2), rushing yards (161.4/game) and yards per carry (5.3), and 30th in points (29.9/game) and total yards (394.6/game).
The defensive line registered just 21 sacks, with over one-third coming from Peppers (team-high 7.5).
It's now Emery's job to find players who can hold up better against the run and provide more pressure, both on the interior of the line and at defensive end. The Bears won't get any better defending the run without a stronger front, and the majority of pressure from Mel Tucker's defense ideally needs to come from the defensive line.
Emery will use the combine to further his evaluation of this year's class of linemen. By the time they leave Indianapolis, the Bears front office should have a better idea if there is a front-four player the team can take at No. 14 overall.
ESPN's Mel Kiper, via Campbell:
I don’t think the defensive line is something you can really wait on. There’s not a lot of depth at end or tackle. So if you look at the Bears’ needs, I would say get the defensive linemen early, wait on those other positions just a bit because the defensive line, both at end and tackle, is just not that deep.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock, via Campbell:
I think Jernigan is a guy that if he was sitting there when the Bears were on the board at 14, I think you’d sprint to the podium...Jernigan is probably more of that three-technique. I think Jernigan can step in and be special early.
NFL Combine Defensive Line Big Board
|1.||Jadeveon Clowney||South Carolina||6'5"||274|
|3.||Timmy Jernigan||Florida State||6'1"||295|
|4.||Louis Nix III||Notre Dame||6'2"||345|
|6.||Stephon Tuitt||Notre Dame||6'5"||315|
|8.||Demarcus Lawrence||Boise State||6'3"||245|
|9.||Will Sutton||Arizona State||6'1"||315|
*Bears pick No. 14 overall
Prospects to Watch
Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
A big-time run-stopper who is a little undersized but plays much bigger than his 6'1", 295-pound frame. His versatility along the line will be attractive, too. He should put up big numbers on the bench press in Indianapolis.
Louis Nix III, Notre Dame
He's a monster of a man at 345 pounds. You wouldn't draft him for sack production, but he'll immediately help against the run. He could team with Paea inside and make a tough duo. Teams will want to learn more about his movement skills at the combine.
Kony Ealy, Missouri
Behind Jadeveon Clowney (who will be long gone by No. 14), Ealy ranks among the best remaining 4-3 ends. He's everything you want in an edge-rusher. It's fair to compare him to former top pick Aldon Smith, although Ealy is more of a liability against the run. The Bears will want to get a feel for his power numbers.
Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State
Maybe the Bears will be scared off after missing on McClellin, a former Boise State pass rusher. But Lawrence looks like a more traditional end, despite his somewhat limited size (245 pounds). He'll need to add weight to be an every-down player. He could really impress with his athleticism in Indy.
Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
Great size (6'5", 315 lbs) and the versatility to play a number of positions along the line will give Tuitt plenty of suitors. He can play as a base end or move inside in certain situations. The Bears will want to see if he really has the athleticism to excel as a 4-3 end.
Aaron Donald, Pitt
He was a big-time producer who blew up the Senior Bowl with his disruptive abilities. Although somewhat undersized, his quickness and ability to play with leverage will translate to the pro game, especially if he's in a one-gap system like in Chicago. He'll be a hit at the combine.
Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
His ability to explode off the ball gives him intriguing one-gapping potential. Disruptive but inconsistent, Hageman is a classic boom-or-bust prospect. He should test well in Indianapolis. Interviews might actually be more important to his stock.