Holes to fill

To put it mildly, the Chicago Bears struggled on defense during the 2013 NFL season. The defensive personnel was pretty much the same as it’s been the last four years, but they didn’t play nearly as well. In league defensive rankings, the Bears were 30th in scoring defense, 30th in yards allowed, and 32nd in rush defense. That is hardly what Chicago fans have been used to seeing.

At the end of the season, General Manager Phil Emery promised change. Not only has there been a drastic change in players, but on the defensive coaching staff as well. Head Coach Marc Trestman brought in linebacker coach Reggie Herring from the Houston Texans, and to coach the defensive line, he hired both Paul Pasqualoni and Clint Hurtt. Pasqualoni has been a successful defensive coordinator in the league and Hurtt built a solid reputation as a defensive line coach at Miami and Louisville.

Two of the mainstays on the defensive line are gone. Defensive tackle Henry Melton went to Dallas as an unrestricted free agent and Julius Peppers was cut and signed with Green Bay. Emery went “all in” as far as signing new defensive players. His main signings on the defensive line are Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen from Minnesota, the young and improving Lamar Houston from the Raiders, and pass rushing defensive end Willie Young from the Lions. They also signed utility defensive lineman Israel Idonije, a former Bear and re-signed defensive tackles Jerimiah Ratliff and Nate Collins.

Collins and Ratliff only played five games each last year. Collins was hurt in the fifth game and Ratliff was unable to play until the final third of the season due to rehab from an injury in 2012. Neither of them can be blamed for the Bears defensive downfall last year.

Safety play was poor in 2013, so Emery signed three new players to play the backend. M.D. Jennings who was a starter for Green Bay last year was the first signing, followed by Ryan Mundy from the New York Giants and Danny McCray from the Dallas Cowboys.

Corner Tim Jennings, a former All Pro, was re-signed to a multi-year contract and popular Charles Tillman was re-signed for just the 2014 season. Also brought back was backup Kelvin Hayden who missed all of 2013 with an injury.

With all of these signings in free agency, what do the Bears do in the draft? It is my feeling that they will still draft defense in the premium rounds of this draft. The question is, "What position will the first round pick be?"

Even after signing all the defensive line players, many draftniks and writers still have the Bears picking Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who may be the best three-technique player in the draft. I believe that their first pick will be either a corner or a linebacker, with corner being the preference.

While the Bears still have age on the defensive line, they are now younger than they were a year ago. The old men of the group are Allen and Ratliff who are 32. Houston and Young are 26 and 28 respectively. They now have a solid seven or eight man rotation to play on the line when you figure in holdover Stephen Paea and Idonije. Also in the mix is second year defensive end David Bass who had some moments as a rookie.

At the corner position, the top three players (Jennings, Tillman, and Hayden) are all on the wrong side of 30. The only young player in the group is second year corner Isaiah Frey. There are some very good corners in this draft with my top three being Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller. All three bring size and speed into the equation. With the NFC North being known for big receivers, teams need big corners to match up. One of those corners will be gone and maybe two by the time the Bears pick at number 14.

At linebacker, the only player I feel is worthy of being taken at the number 14 spot and is Alabama’s C.J. Mosley. Mosley has the athletic traits to play either Mike or Will in the Bears scheme. He is productive, tough and instinctive.

There is one safety who may enter into the mix and that is another Alabama player, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Clinton-Dix has the size and athletic traits to play either free or strong safety, but his best position is free safety, where he has range and ball skills.

When you go into draft planning, you have to figure in the depth of the draft at your need positions. The Bears' second round pick isn’t until 51. The chances of getting a top corner at the 51st pick is far less than being able to draft a good defensive tackle or safety.

At 51, the top five corners will be gone (my fourth and fifth are Brad Roby and Jason Verrett), but there is a possibility that a potentially top defensive lineman will be there. At least one of the group of Anthony Johnson (LSU), Kelsey Quarles (South Carolina) or Dominique Easley (Florida) should be there. All three fit the Bears scheme. Easley is a question mark though, as he is coming off an injury and it remains to be seen if he is medically cleared. We should know that shortly.

At the safety position, the Bears could be looking at someone like Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois or Deone Bucannon from Washington State. The linebacker who may come into play at that time is Shane Skov from Stanford, a very active and instinctive player.

Figuring out what to do is never an easy decision. It’s my opinion that corner is the best way to go. When you look at free agency, top corners always get paid at a premium. It is much easier to draft and develop your own. When looking at how the draft may fall, I also think that corner becomes the best selection because of the defensive line depth. There is a drop-off of talent at the corner position.

Some may say that Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste would be a good pick. He ran slow at the combine and is only a press corner. He struggles in off and zone coverage. The next corner may be Utah’s Keith McGill. McGill is an interesting guy who is also primarily a press corner but is better in zone and off than Jean-Baptiste. In saying that you could ask yourself if 51 is too high to take McGill?

These are all questions that Phil Emery, Marty Barrett (College Scouting Director) and Marc Trestman will be asking themselves in the coming weeks. We will find out the answer beginning May 8th. As I said, I’m betting on corner. What do you think?

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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