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Bears

Hoge’s Bears Offseason Notebook No. 8: Impressive Upgrade Of Pass Rushers

Lamarr Houston. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Lamarr Houston. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) — Before free agency opened, I analyzed the Bears’ depth chart, pinpointing the areas they needed to address.

In just a few short weeks, almost all of those areas have been addressed, and it’s pretty easy to say the Bears are a better team than they were when free agency started. So with new players aboard — and an updated depth chart to keep in mind — let’s take a look at the questions that were answered, the ones that still remain and new ones that have arisen:

Three Questions Answered

1. Starting middle linebacker – It seemed likely that D.J. Williams would return as the team’s starting middle linebacker, but he still wanted to see if he could get a multi-year deal on the open market. That didn’t happen, and the Bears got Williams back for one more season. This will create a situation in which Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic will have to battle hard for a starting linebacker spot with the winner likely ending up as the starting strong side linebacker and the loser backing up both the strong and middle spots. However, the Bears have said both Bostic and McClellin will receive some reps in the middle leading up to the season, and in a perfect world, one or both would also push Williams for his job. That might be asking for a lot, but the Bears could also add to the middle linebacker position through the draft, and competition is exactly what they need at the position.

2. Defensive end – Bears general manager Phil Emery has made it no secret that his No. 1 priority this offseason is to upgrade the pass rush. So far, that’s exactly what he’s done. Emery essentially turned a defensive end quartet of Julius Peppers, Shea McClellin, Corey Wootton and David Bass into Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Israel Idonije — with Bass still on the team.

Using 2013 statistics to compare those two groups of four players (Bass was fourth on the Bears in pass rushing snaps in 2013 but would now rank fifth among his new teammates), Emery has increased the disruption total (sacks, knockdowns and hurries via STATS) from 71 to 122. And, if you’re fan of Pro Football Focus’ numbers, you’ll be happy to hear that the Bears’ new group of top four defensive ends had an average Pass Rush Productivity of 9.2 in 2013, while last year’s top four had a PRP of 6.475.

Bears Pass Rush Numbers

Notice that Bass actually led the Bears in PRP last season, but now he ranks fifth. This is simply a deeper, more productive group of defensive ends.

3. Starting cornerback – Charles Tillman is back, filling a hole that could have been a major problem for the Bears next season. Signing Tim Jennings to a long-term extension was smart, but in the NFC North, you should always ask yourself: Who’s going to line up against Calvin Johnson? Tillman is still that guy — at least for one more year. Now the Bears need to look to develop another No. 1 cornerback behind him.

Three Remaining Questions

1. Safety – The Bears added three new safeties to the mix, but Danny McCray figures to be more of a special teamer, while Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings are far from Pro Bowl-caliber. Emery made it clear that he wants competition at both safety spots. That competition appears to exist at free safety between Jennings and Chris Conte, but Mundy still needs a competitor at strong safety. This is still a huge position of need in the NFL Draft.

2. Defensive tackle – The upgrades at defensive end are impressive, but there are still only three defensive tackles on the roster: Jeremiah Ratliff, Stephen Paea and Nate Collins. That’s not a bad trio, but depth and at least one more competitor for a starting spot needs to be added.

3. Backup Quarterback – With Josh McCown proving to be too expensive for the Bears, they re-signed Jordan Palmer with hopes he can develop into a solid No. 2. The Bears love Palmer’s presence in the quarterback meeting room, but can he play well enough if Jay Cutler misses any time? It’s a crucial question that needs to be answered by September.

Three New Questions

1. Backup running back – With additions come necessary subtractions, and backup running back Michael Bush became the Bears’ first cap casualty of the offseason. Right now, the Bears only have two running backs on their roster with Matt Forte and Michael Ford. They seem to like Ford, but he’ll likely face some competition for the backup job. The question is, will the Bears use a draft pick on one? With Forte entering his seventh season, the argument for investing in the position could be made.

2. No. 3 wide receiver – It wasn’t surprising to see Earl Bennett become a cap casualty, but it does cloud the depth at the position a little bit. The competition for the No. 3 spot appears to be between sophomore Marquess Wilson and veteran free agent addition Domenik Hixon. That’s fine — as long as Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery play all 16 games. The door is open for Emery to add another weapon at the position.

3. Specialists – Now that the dust has settled on some of the more important defensive positions, a little bit of the attention can be turned to the specialists. The only known commodity right now is kicker Robbie Gould. Otherwise, there could be new faces at punter, long snapper and kick/punt returner. Drew Butler and Tress Way appear to be headed for a punting competition, while names like Hixon, Ford and Chris Williams are in the mix at returner. There will almost certainly be more names added, either through the draft or undrafted free agency.

Tweetbag

The idea of Houston getting some snaps inside on some sub packages can’t be ruled out, but if he’s the Bears’ starting 3-technique Week 1, then the defense is still in trouble. Phil Emery is trying to create depth among his pass rushers and the trio of Houston, Allen and Young is a good one. The Bears aren’t done with their defensive tackles, and I still believe they could use an early pick on one in the draft. You don’t want another situation where you are playing a defensive end out of position inside, like what happened with Corey Wootton last season.

Also keep in mind that the defensive fronts will likely look different next season. You’re ideally going to have a lot of rotation and different looks at the line of scrimmage. Emery has added players with versatility. Houston, for instance, has a lot of experience standing up, and he’s just as likely to do that as he is to play inside. Young has played a lot on the left and a good amount on the right. Allen actually might have the least versatility, having lined up 98 percent of the time on the right side last year, but he’s obviously talented enough to do different things.

The point is, it’s time to stop slotting new players into the old defense. The Bears have said over and over again that they are going to build this year’s defense around their personnel. Start thinking about new ways to use the new players.

Well, first off, based on my own evaluation, I believe Louis Nix is more tech-specific than Aaron Donald. Nix can probably play 0- or 1-tech in a one- or two-gap front, but to me, he’s definitely a guy playing over the center. I saw Donald get some work as a 1-tech in Senior Bowl practices, and he’s better at it than he’s getting credit for. That said, I’m not going to deny the fact that he looks like a prototypical 3-technique that gets up hill on the passer.

Clearly, versatility is important to the Bears, and if they are drafting a defensive tackle in the first round, they probably want a guy who can move around a bit. Between Donald and Nix, I think Donald fits that mold more, and I also think he’s the better player. As for RaShede Hageman, I don’t know if he’s ever going to line up over the center, but he can definitely be used as either a 3-tech or a defensive end and that could be attractive to the Bears, too. I think he carries little bit more risk as a “boom-or-bust” player though and might be a reach at No. 14.

I can’t rule it out completely, but it would still be surprising. Of course, Emery has been known for first-round surprises in his first two seasons. As I look at the depth chart right now, I still see immediate help needed at defensive tackle and safety, as well as pressing help needed at cornerback and middle linebacker should either Charles Tillman or D.J. Williams go down. If Emery went with an offensive player in the first round, it would have to be a guy they have an enormously high grade on that they never thought would fall to No. 14. And if that’s the case, then fine, pull the trigger. The offense could use another playmaker and a tight end or wide receiver/returner type that could bring immediate impact would make sense.

College Prospect Of The Week

S Calvin Pryor — Louisville

Pryor and Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are the top two safeties in this year’s draft, but they’re much different players. While Clinton-Dix is more of a playmaker on the ball, Pryor is run-stuffing, hard-hitting safety who will play up in the box more. That said, he has the speed and instincts to play either free or strong safety, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many teams believe Pryor can be the better overall player because he has the punishing mentality and the upside to improve his ball skills on the back end. That seems to be the exact kind of the player the Bears would want to add to their offseason safety competition.

Extra Point

It’s not often a general manager tells you exactly how he thinks about adding a certain free agent, but that’s exactly what Phil Emery did with Jared Allen. At Halas Hall two weeks ago, Emery admitted he would be interested in adding Allen, but he also made it pretty clear the price had to come down. It did, and the Bears did their part to free up some cap room to make it happen.

If you just compare Allen to Julius Peppers, who the Bears released earlier this month, Emery made a swap for a slightly younger, more productive player at pretty much the same price the Packers paid Peppers. Allen’s cap charges are $3 million in 2014, $12.5 million in 2015, $8.5 million in 2016 and $8 million in 2017, while Peppers’ are $3.5 million in 2014, $12 million in 2015 and $10.5 million in 2016.

And, as referenced in the chart above, Allen had 26.5 more disruptions than Peppers in 2013, according to STATS.

Better value? I’d say so.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.