This was a weird year for Bears fans.
Historically a team that never had much of a quarterback threat, had (in some eyes) a legitimate quarterback controversy. Brian Urlacher was not on the roster for the first time since being drafted in 2000. And for the first time I could remember, the Bears had an offense that ranked second in the NFL, thanks large in part, to the offensive minded Marc Trestman taking over as head coach. What the Bears possessed in offense though, they gave up in defense. To be frank about it, the defense gave up 30 points per game which included giving up a little over 160 rushing yards a game.
It didn’t help the fact that the three most important players on the Bears defense were hampered or knocked out due to injury. Henry Melton and Charles Tillman had season ending injuries and Lance Briggs struggled to maintain his health all year it seemed. Even with those loses to the defense, Bears fans are used to the “next man up” handling his business. This season though, the lack of depth was exposed and the rest of the league took advantage of that.
That brings us to this off-season. The Bears clearly need help on the defensive side of the ball and it doesn’t all start and end with the draft. The Bears have to consider what to do with the defensive players still on their roster and have to look into free agency for other options.
It’s no secret that as of right now, all signs point to Chicago parting ways with Julius Peppers. Keeping the declining 34 year old for about $14 million makes no sense for a team with holes to fill. They can obviously spread that money around, which is what will most likely happen. Henry Melton was hit with the franchise tag last season and that ended up becoming an expensive seat on the bench for the Bears. Melton has been reportedly working out and rehabbing every day. He also has shed some of his weight so it appears his focus is in the right place to get better. Phil Emery knows that signing Melton is key for this weak defensive line, and bringing back the All-Pro defensive tackle is a better look than plugging a first or second rounder into that position. Charles Tillman is a touchy subject though. Tillman is a fan favorite. He’s also one of the more respected veterans in the locker room. It’s a different situation from the Brian Urlacher one last year at this time, because Tillman can still play. He’s an intelligent player and is still one of the better corners in the league. The problem with Tillman and the Bears will be what Tillman thinks he’s worth and what the Bears think he’s worth. Chicago already re-signed cornerback Tim Jennings, and one can argue that Jennings’ success could directly have come from playing on the other side of the field of Tillman. Charles “Peanut” Tillman has already shot down the possibility of him playing safety anywhere, which is something the Bears were rumored to propose to Tillman.
When it comes to the draft, everyone immediately looks at the first round and this year the Bears have the 14th overall pick. Personally, I’d love to see Alabama’s Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix be drafted at that spot. The Bears defense was bad all around, but thanks to Chris Conte and Major Wright, the safety position was just god-awful. Clinton-Dix would provide a big bodied, versatile free safety that should excel for any team at the pro-level. He had a good showing at the combine which only added to the attention he was getting. The other safeties that are getting attention in this year’s draft are Calvin Pryor of Louisville and Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois. I hate to sound like an elitist but when one thinks of defensive players, it’s hard to say you’d go with the kid from the American or MAC conference over the kid who played in the SEC. In a perfect world the Bears would get two of these three in the first two rounds and hopefully have those safety spots locked up for years to come.
If the Bears don’t resign Melton as I previously mentioned, this would mean the defensive tackle position would have to be taken into consideration with the first pick as well. Most mock drafts I’ve seen have either safety Clinton-Dix going to the Bears or Florida State defensive tackle Tim Jernigan. Jernigan seems to be getting a lot of love for the most part, but there’s one image of Jernigan I cannot shake: He was gassed in the fourth quarter of the National Championship game against an Auburn team that would not let up in their strong running game. Granted, it was the 4th quarter and granted Auburn was a very good team – it’s just not what you want to see out of a highly praised defensive tackle.
Looking passed the first round is where Phil Emery has to prove he’s worth what he’s getting paid though. Everyone knows it’s easy to pick a stud in the first round, a good GM finds starters in the fourth and beyond (which he did last year when drafting right tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round).
In the third or fourth round, the Bears could land a defensive tackle like DeQuan Jones from Penn State or the 6’7″ 350 pound beast from Tennessee, Daniel McCullers. Considering his size McCullers, running a 40-time of 5.18 is pretty impressive. Rob Rang of CBS Sports considers him to be more of a run stopper than a threat in the pass rush but stopping the run was the biggest problem for this Bears team.
Knowing that the Bears won’t have a shot to draft the premier pass rushers in this draft, they have to wonder where guys like Demarcus Lawrence, defensive end from Boise State will end up. He might go in the 4th round. . .maybe 5th. He doesn’t come off as a true defensive end, but if lined up accordingly, he can be effective in the right match ups. Not sure if Chicago would go this route considering this could be Shea McClellin all over again. When it comes to “pass rushers” I can’t see the Bears going in on the linebacker position in the draft. Especially after considering they took Bostic and Greene last year and are looking to move McClellin there as well.
When it comes to free agents, everyone loves Greg Hardy. At 26 he’s still in his prime but with that comes a heavy price tag which would limit the Bears to spreading money elsewhere. Division rival, the Minnesota Vikings have decisions to make on both of their defensive ends, Jared Allen and Everson Griffen. Allen at 32 is six years older than Griffen and will be testing the market. It’s not a new thing when division rivals sign up with a team they’re familiar with so it would be interesting if the Bears made an attempt at either one. If Chicago can’t land a safety in the draft an intriguing free agent is Stevie Brown of the New York Giants. He seems to be one of those guys who has a knack for “making the play” and being at the right place at the right time. He actually reminds me of former Bears saftey Mike Brown.
One would think it would be an impossible task to “flip” this defense but coach Marc Trestman doesn’t sound worried: “There were 10 players on the offensive side of the ball that were not on the roster at this time of the year and significantly impacted our football team by the end of the season… I just note that because this is a process we are going through, filtering through our team, filtering through the free agents and then building our team through the draft.”
If the Bears can somehow reverse the fortune of this defense, it would not only make every Bears fan’s wildest dreams come true, it would also be one remarkable feat.