The Chicago Bears are your 2010 NFC North division champions. Like many of their division championships in franchise history, this team was driven by a ferocious defense that continually made clutch plays.
If the Bears want to repeat as the division champs for years to come, they likely will have to lean on their defense yet again.
The defensive stars of today likely won't be around in four years. Brian Urlacher is 32, Israel Idonije, Anthony Adams, Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs are 30, Charles Tillman and Pisa Tinoisamoa are 29 and Danieal Manning is 28.
Looking at the age of the Chicago Bears starting defense makes you wonder; what players will be leading the potential division championship defense over the next few years? Here are the ten players that play defense for the Bears under the age of 26, and a look at how they've performed thus far and what their future may be.
Some questioned the Bears pick of Josh Moore in the fourth round of last April's draft, and so far, their concerns have been proven right. Moore hasn't seen the field, and the former Kansas State Wildcat didn't impress in the preseason either.
There's not much to say about Moore and what we can expect from him at the future. However, at Kansas State, the undersized Moore was known for impressive run support. If he can bring that despite his small stature, he could be a valuable and surprising member of the Bears starting secondary in the future.
The only Bears rookie to see considerable playing time on defense, it's apparent Lovie Smith wants the third round pick out of Florida to succeed. Whilst he's had his struggles in coverage, the youngster is already developing a knack for huge hits and sure tackling.
Wright has come close to recording his first career interception in the past few weeks, and it's likely he'll notch a pick soon. However, he can't be anointed the full-time starter just yet. In his debut against Detroit, he made an error leading to a big gain by Bryant Johnson, he made a costly helmet-to-helmet hit on Joe Webb in the division clinching win against the Vikings and most notably was credited with most of the blame on a huge touchdown to Deion Branch against the Patriots. While these can be credited as rookie mistakes, he still needs to play smarter.
After choosing not to resign Mike Brown two offseasons ago, the Bears have lacked a legitimate playmaker at safety. If his rookie year is any indication, Wright looks like he could be the safety the Bears have been looking for.
When the Bears selected Wootton in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft, they felt they were getting a steal. After a 2008 season that led him to an honorable All-American selection, a first team All-Big Ten and Northwestern's most valuable player, he spent most of 2009 on the sideline injured.
However, when Bears picked him, they knew they were getting a player with all the physical tools you could want: the 6'6, 270 pound defensive end took awhile to get healthy, but Wootton has been the definition of a late bloomer. After being inactive for much of the first ten weeks of the season, Wootton played a major role spelling Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers against the Patriots and Vikings.
His most notable play was obviously against the Vikings. On a third and four, Wootton pushed Bryant McKinnie back about five yards before disengaging and slamming into Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. Favre laid motionless on the ground for a few seconds, and that potentially could be the play that ends the legend's career.
Wootton's performance the last two weeks show that he's starting to pick up the speed of the NFL and could be a key contributor for a Bears playoff run, and also looks like a future starter down the line.
The only two Bears to wear the number 30 during the 2000's have been arguably two of their most unlikely playmakers.
DJ Moore was yet another Bear drafted out of Vanderbilt. However, despite barely seeing the field his rookie year, Moore played well enough in training camp to earn the nickelback role coming into 2010. At this time, the diminutive (5'9, 180 pound) player was considered a weakness on the Bears defense.
Moore had his coming out party against the Dallas Cowboys, picking off Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo twice and forcing a fumble that clinched the 27-20 win for the Bears. He supplanted himself as one of the bright young playmakers on the Bears defense five weeks later, when he returned a Donovan McNabb interception 54 yards for a touchdown. With four interceptions, he's having a breakout sophomore campaign.
Moore's future with the Bears will be interesting. Will the 5'9 corner get a chance to start? Or will he stay at nickelback for the rest of his career? It will be something to watch over the next few years.
The Bears turned some heads when they drafted this running back-turned defensive end from Texas in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. He wasn't on many people's radars as a prospect. Melton hadn't even played defensive end until his junior season in college, not starting until his senior year!
However, the physical attributes were there. The 6'4, 270 pound pass rusher ran a 4.6 40 yard dash, but hadn't shown much on the field. After a rookie season that ended because of injury, fans had given up on Melton.
However, he's been a ferocious force on the Bears line this season. While racking up two sacks (technically three, one was a strip sack) as a rotational player on the defensive line, Melton has provided a pass rush similar to what Mark Anderson did in 2007.
Time will tell if Melton can become a full-time starter, but regardless, he'll be a solid rotational member on the defensive line.
Craig Steltz is a polarizing figure in the Bears community. Some see him as nothing more than a slow, special teams contributor. Others see the plays he's made when he's been on the field, like this interception his rookie season, and ask why he isn't playing more.
Steltz was known in college for his ferocious hits, and was drafted out of Louisiana State in the fourth round of the 2008 draft by the Bears. Because of various injuries and lack of solid play from the Bears safety, he saw time as a rookie in a safety rotation, notching a handful tackles while also contributing on special teams.
Slated to be the starting free safety going into 2009, Steltz lost his job in training camp to Danieal Manning. However, the former LSU Tiger could potentially get his chance next year to beat out Chris Harris if Daniel Manning leaves via free agency.
Graham, much like another cornerback on the Bears roster, looked at one time like he was ready to be a star. In just his second season in 2008, Graham was pressed into action due to major injuries at the cornerback position. The former fifth round pick started nine games in 2008, only racking up one interception but repeatedly making reliable plays and being an impressive young player.
Come 2009, Graham just fell into the doghouse and stopped seeing as much time on defense. However, Graham is still around and is a potential Pro Bowler because of how well he plays as the gunner on special teams.
With his size (6'1, 200 pounds) and reliable run support, Graham seems like the perfect corner for the Cover 2 system Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli runs. Because of his talent on special teams, Graham is sure to stick around, and as long as he's here, he'll be in contention to play.
Graham may or may not be a starter down the line, but at the very least he's a quality player who'll be a useful back-up. Whether or not the Bears give him a contract extension will let you know whether the Bears see Graham as simply a replaceable special teamer or a future starter for the Bears.
The second Northwestern Wildcat on this list, Roach came in as an undrafted free agent after being cut by the Chargers. Roach stuck around with the Bears, and much like Corey Graham, earned playing time in the injury plagued 2008 season. He started the final nine games, making 34 tackles and being a promising young starter.
In 2009, Roach filled in at various linebacker spots, filling in for the injured Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker and an injured Lance Briggs at weakside linebacker. Roach continuously made plays, racking up 75 tackles and two sacks. Yet again in 2010, Roach has seen time and has started four games.
As Roach and fellow outside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa approach free agency this offseason, the Bears will have a choice. Keep current starter Tinoisamoa, or give Roach a chance to finally be a full-time starter? It'll be interesting to see their choice.
Like Corey Graham, Zack Bowman looked at one time like he going to be a star. Stepping in against the Steelers in the second week of 2009, Bowman proceeded to lead the Bears with six interceptions that year and was moved to the number one cornerback spot in the offseason.
However, Lovie Smith's new short leash mentality pulled Zack Bowman against the Packers for missing a tackle for free agent signee Tim Jennings. The player that at one time seemed like a lock to be a Pro Bowler now barely sees the field.
However, not all is lost. Charles Tillman, nearing age 30, has slowed down with injuries and has at times looked like more of a liability. If Bowman can prove to the Bears that he has shored up his 'tackling issues', he could potentially overtake Tillman in a year or two and return to being the playmaker the Bears thought they had.
If there's a more unlikely starter on the Bears defense than Toeaina this season, feel free to tell me. The former Oregon product had been on the Bears since 2007, but had been behind a combination of players like Tommie Harris, Jimmy Kennedy, Babatunde Oshinowo, Darwin Walker, Israel Idonije, Anthony Adams, Marcus Harrison, Dusty Dvoracek and Antonio Garay over the course of his time with the Bears.
However, after an impressive preseason, Toeaina made enough plays to earn the respect of Lovie Smith, earning him the starting role over Tommie Harris, and since then has been a valuable run defender and has racked up two sacks while providing a valuable rush.
Toeaina is a young player who might not have the explosiveness of Tommie Harris, but he's much more consistent and looks to be a potential staple at defensive tackle.