By Adam Hoge-
The sixth in a series of depth chart breakdowns leading up to the start of Bears training camp in Bourbonnais.
(CBS) Despite the Chicago Bears hiring an offensive-minded head coach, the defense enters 2013 as the more reliable unit and will be expected to perform at a high level once again.
General manager Phil Emery hired Mel Tucker to lead the defense in an effort to maintain the continuity that has led to so much success on that side of the ball over the last decade. Lovie Smith may be gone, but Tucker is similarly well-liked by his players and he is essentially running the exact same scheme. Tucker will certainly throw in his own wrinkles, but he didn’t even bother to change the terminology, instead deciding to learn what was already in place in Chicago.
And since the defense isn’t changing it’s scheme, that means the unit needs production from the defensive line. The Cover-2 base relies on a heavy pass rush and continued development from young players on the line will be crucial to the Bears’ success this season.
Let’s take a look at the depth on the unit:
|1st Team||2nd Team||3rd Team||4th Team|
|LE||Corey Wootton||Shea McClellin||Kyle Moore||Aston Whiteside|
|DT||Henry Melton||Sedrick Ellis||Zach Minter||Brent Russell|
|NT||Stephen Paea||Nate Collins||Christian Tupou||Corvey Irvin|
|RE||Julius Peppers||Turk McBride||Cornelius Washington||Cheta Ozougwu|
DE Corey Wootton – Finally healthy, Wootton took a big step forward last season and now enters the final year of his rookie contract.
DT Henry Melton – 2013 is essentially another contract year for Melton, who will play under the one-year franchise tag.
NT Stephen Paea – Now in his third season, the Bears expect Paea to keep getting better.
DE Julius Peppers – Will the 33-year-old ever start to slow down?
Reserve Defensive Ends
DE Shea McClellin – After mixed results during his rookie year, McClellin needs to prove he has the physicality to be an elite pass rusher in the NFL.
DE Turk McBride – Hasn’t done a whole lot in seven NFL seasons and isn’t a guarantee to make the team.
DE Cornelius Washington – The sixth-round pick from Georgia is a former 3-4 linebacker like McClellin.
DE Cheta Ozougwu – 2011’s “Mr. Irrelevant” saw action in two games with the Bears last season.
DE Kyle Moore – The former USC defensive end had his most productive NFL season last year with 24 tackles and three sacks with the Buffalo Bills.
DE Aston Whiteside – Spent last year on the Bears’ practice squad and never saw action in a game.
Reserve Defensive Tackles
DT Sedrick Ellis – The sixth-year tackle out of USC gives the Bears added depth in the middle.
DT Nate Collins – Was solid in nine games off the bench for the Bears last season.
DT Zach Minter – The rookie from Montana State flew under the radar before the NFL Draft and signed with the Bears as a free agent.
DT Christian Tupou – Needs to prove he’s fully recovered from an ACL injury that slowed the end of an otherwise good career at USC.
DT Brent Russell – The undrafted free agent was one of the best defensive players in the FCS at Georgia Southern.
DT Corvey Irvin – Only has 11 career tackles in four seasons. The Bears will be his fifth NFL team.
Training Camp Outlook
The Bears decided not to re-sign an aging Israel Idonije in the offseason, a move not all that surprising with Wootton proving to be an NFL starter and McClellin making progress. But it was also a decision that could hurt the team’s depth at the position this season. Behind McClellin’s potential, there are five question marks. Cornelius Washington will most likely need a year to develop as he gets used to putting a hand on the ground, much like McClellin did a year ago. He may show flashes with his speed, but it will be hard to count on much from the rookie this year. Kyle Moore could prove to be a solid backup after starting seven games in Buffalo last season, but if injuries force him into a starter’s role, that could be trouble. Cheta Ozouwu and Aston Whiteside are still projects, while Turk McBride has never really lived up to expectations since getting drafted in the second round by the Chiefs in 2007.
Inside, however, GM Phil Emery deserves credit for bolstering the depth at defensive tackle. This was one of the Bears’ thinnest positions when the offseason started and now it looks pretty good. Melton and Paea are the starters, but the June signing of Sedrick Ellis could end up being one of the better under-the-radar moves of the offseason. He’s looking for another chance and will be highly motivated to contribute. Meanwhile, Emery found two undrafted free agents who could end up contributing. Zach Minter and Brent Russell both played at the FCS level, but were highly effective and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if one of them ends up sticking. Christian Tupou was a pretty effective player at USC before an ACL injury and it will be evident pretty quickly in camp whether or not he can play at a high enough level. Corvey Irvin’s fate may be determined by injuries to other players in camp.
Overall, the Bears’ starting defensive line has the potential to be one the best in the league. Three-fourths of the starting line consists of younger players on the upside with two of them on expiring contracts. And the last fourth is Julius Peppers. The question is with the depth, which is basically a tossup. That’s a scary though when the Cover-2 base relies so heavily on an effective pass rush.
Sleeper: Zach Minter. Minter had a chance to be drafted in the sixth or seventh round, but the Bears elected to go with wide receiver Marquess Wilson with their last pick instead. Luckily, Minter went undrafted and the Bears were able to sign him as a free agent instead. The defensive end from Montana State has good speed, but is slightly undersized. Still, this is a guy who was good enough to be drafted and he could very well push for a roster spot in Bourbonnais.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.