By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) This is the second in a two-part series, taking a look at the Bears defensive roster by position group.
Projected starters: Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton
Others: Shea McClellin, Turk McBride, Cornelius Washington (Rookie), Kyle Moore, Cheta Ozougwu, Aston Whiteside
Analysis: Despite registering back-to-back double-digit sack seasons, the Bears need even more from Julius Peppers. Opponents must account for Peppers on every snap, and slide protection his way, which creates single block opportunities (“singles”) for his linemates. Who will capitalize on these singles?
Corey Wootton took his game to a new level last season. Heading into a contract year, if his ascension continues, Wootton could be in line for a big payday. Wootton assumes Israel Idonije’s role, and may kick inside to tackle in their nickel sub package.
Quite simply, Shea McClellin must produce. McClellin showed flashes of the athleticism that made him the 19th overall pick in 2012, but his production didn’t match the measurables.
Of the rest, keep an eye on Kyle Moore and rookie Cornelius Washington.
Biggest question: Will Shea McClellin justify his status as a first-round draft pick?
Final thoughts: Peppers is the highest paid player on the roster and must play up to that level on a weekly basis. Peppers has 12 years of wear and tear on his body and is due $36.8M over the next two seasons, so the Bears need to find their pass rusher(s) of the future.
Projected starters: Henry Melton, Stephen Paea
Others: Nate Collins, Sedrick Ellis, Corvey Irvin, Zach Minter (Rookie), Brent Russell (Rookie), Christian Tupou (Rookie)
Analysis: Henry Melton cashed in on a strong performance in a contract year, earning the franchise tag designation. Melton was the Bears most consistent lineman, using his quickness to shoot his gap and collapse the pocket from the inside. Ideally, the Bears will reach a long-term deal with Melton by the July 15th deadline.
Stephen Paea had a few dominant performances last season against lesser competition, but was also invisible at times. Paea must come up with a counter to his “hump” move, as you can’t expect to just overpower blockers every play.
Given his age and ties to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, bringing back Nate Collins made sense. Collins has quick feet and plays with relentlessness on the inside. Signing Sedrick Ellis was another astute move, as he immediately becomes part of the four-man rotation. Ellis has yet to live up to being a high first-round pick, but maybe a change of scenery and sitting on the open market for three months will light a fire.
Biggest question: Is there enough talent in the group to create a quality rotation?
Final thoughts: Prior to the draft, I had defensive tackle as a position of need. If nobody other than Melton steps up, teams will continue sliding protection to Peppers.
Projected starters: Lance Briggs, DJ Williams, James Anderson
Others: Jon Bostic (Rookie), Khaseem Greene (Rookie), Blake Costanzo, JT Thomas, Patrick Trahan, Lawrence Wilson
Analysis: Two-thirds of the Bears 2012 starting linebackers are gone. From a nostalgic point of view, it will be odd to not see Brian Urlacher lining up this fall. But from a performance point of view, the Bears may be better off.
Lance Briggs has been one of the NFL’s most consistent linebackers for years, and now assumes a larger leadership role.
Phil Emery brought in two professional tackling machines, in DJ Williams and James Anderson. With Williams, it’s never been a matter of talent or production, it’s a matter of keeping his head on straight. Anderson leaves a bit to be desired in coverage, but is a stout run defender.
The Bears put a premium on coverage linebackers in the draft, selecting Jon Bostic, and Khaseem Greene. The hope is they’ve selected their Mike (Bostic), and Will (Greene) of the future.
Biggest question: Will Jon Bostic be given a legitimate chance at a starting spot?
Final thoughts: Linebacker depth and athleticism has been upgraded, which will help both base and nickel packages, and on special teams. Williams and Anderson could turn out to be one-year rentals, as the Bears look to the future with Bostic and Greene in 2014.
Projected starters: Charles “Peanut” Tillman, Tim Jennings
Others: Kelvin Hayden, Zach Bowman, Sherrick McManus, Isaiah Frey, Demontre Hurst (Rookie), Maurice Jones (Rookie), CJ Wilson (Rookie)
Analysis: Tillman and Jennings were among the best cornerback combinations in the NFL in 2012. Having a pair of trustworthy cornerbacks affords defensive coordinators more latitude to use safeties as blitzers and in run support.
Hayden played his way onto the field at nickel and should assume that role again. Bowman turned out to be a valuable in-season acquisition, making several impact plays on special teams. McManus is also a key special teams contributor.
Biggest question: Will Emery extend Tillman and/or Jennings during the season, or are they entering their last year with the Bears?
Final thoughts: All of the Bears top four cornerbacks are on one-year deals. Seeing there are no young prospects in the pipeline, this an intriguing situation to monitor.
Projected starters: Chris Conte, Major Wright
Others: Craig Steltz, Anthony Walters, Tom Zbikowski, Brandon Hardin, Tom Nelson, Cyhl Quarles
Analysis: Conte primarily lined up as the single-high safety last season, yet it was Wright who had more impact plays in pass defense. In theory, the Tampa-2 shell takes away the deep ball and forces teams to patiently work the ball down the field. This alignment creates passing windows between the corner and safety that opposing teams target, so Conte and Wright need to be more aggressive, be it collisions or jumping routes.
Hardin was a reach in the draft, and suffered a season-ending injury in preseason. He hasn’t played a full season of football in two years, so he will face serious scrutiny in Bourbonnais.
Zbikowski will contribute primarily on special teams, but he could also start in a pinch.
Biggest question: Will Major Wright solidify himself as a cornerstone strong safety worth extending?
Final thoughts: It appears the Bears have the makings of a solid, young safety combination. Given the almost eight year long game of musical chairs at the position, that’s encouraging.
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