By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) — If you believe Bears general manager Phil Emery, drafting a safety in the first three rounds was never the plan.
At least it wasn’t Plan A.
After drafting two defensive tackles Friday night — LSU’s Ego Ferguson 51st overall and Arizona State’s Will Sutton 82nd overall — Emery said they “were the two players that we had slotted for those two spots.”
“We had planned on taking two defensive tackles in the second and third round and if the value didn’t work out, we were going to hang on until the fourth or fifth (round) and move that value, which meant it was going to be a different quality of player,” Emery explained. “But the two players that we were orientated towards in the second and third round were there when we wanted to pick them, so we took them.”
This coming after the Bears passed on every safety in the draft at No. 14 overall when they took Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller Thursday.
So that tells you pretty much all you need to know about how the Bears valued the safeties against their needs at cornerback at defensive tackle.
“I’ve never gone into the draft thinking that you can meet all your needs on that day,” Emery said. “So meet the needs that are most important. And it was extremely important for us to have another corner that could cover and someone with upside that could be a future starter. And it was extremely important for us to get a couple young D-tackles to add to our group so that No. 1 we can be more physical up front and stop the run.”
Those last three words are why Emery can justify not taking a safety in the first three rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Stop. The. Run.
After allowing a franchise record 2,583 rushing yards in 2013, stopping the run remains the Bears’ top priority and while the safeties play a role in that, it all starts up front.
So get to know Ego Ferguson, the big, raw defensive tackle out of LSU who needs to improve his pass rush skills, but can come in right away and control the run.
“He’s a very powerful, very strong, tough inside player,” Emery said. “The things that kept coming up when you watched him against SEC tape was that he controlled the front. People could not run the ball up inside when he was on the field and that was a big attraction for us.”
The Bears GM specifically pointed to games against Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Georgia.
“Nobody could run the ball on them inside at all. He is very tough at the point of attack. This is a very strong, very powerful young man,” Emery said.
In all the chatter about the Bears’ need for a passing rushing three-technique (and believe me, I was a big participant) it was somewhat forgotten that improving the run defense up the middle was more important.
And that’s why Emery went with Ferguson in the second round before addressing the three-technique in the third.
Had Sutton entered the NFL Draft after his junior season, he very likely would have been a first round draft pick. Playing at 285 pounds, Sutton racked up 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2012, establishing himself as one of the best pass rushing defensive tackle prospects in the entire country. Emery even went out to Oregon to scout Sutton in person at the Pac-12 Championship Game, a trip that took a sudden turn when Sutton got hurt on his second snap of the game. Instead of watching Sutton, Emery suddenly found himself staring at an Oregon offensive lineman by the name of Kyle Long.
With his stock high, Sutton could have left Arizona State early. But not only did the defensive tackle not enter the draft, he completely changed his body and tried to play a different style in 2013. He ballooned to 320 pounds as a senior and his production dropped dramatically (13.5 tackles for loss and only four sacks in 2013).
“He was told by a lot of people — people that he trusted — that he needed to gain weight and get bigger,” Emery said. “Maybe he needed to gain a little bit, but not quite that much.”
Sutton was still at 315 pounds at the Senior Bowl in January where he looked slow off the line and uncomfortable in his body, but a month later at the NFL Combine, he was down to 303 and started to turn some heads again. Now he’s down to 290 and Emery said he’d like to see him playing anywhere between 285 and 295.
Clearly, Sutton’s weight loss had an impact on the Bears drafting him.
“It played a role because it says that he’s dedicated towards improving himself and that when he sets his mind to something he can accomplish it,” Emery said.
The whole ordeal may have cost Sutton two rounds in the draft, but for the Bears, they found their next three-technique.
So to review: Cornerback? Check. Run-stuffing nose tackle? Check. Pass-rushing three-technique? Check.
Safety? Not so much. At least not yet.
Like Emery said, you can’t address all your needs early in the draft, and now it appears the Bears are going to have to try to hit a home run with a later pick at the safety position.
Understandably, such a strategy is probably hard to swallow for fans of a team that has struggled to find a reliable safety since Mike Brown left in 2008, but Friday night, Emery simply valued the defensive tackles more.
“(Defensive tackle) is a short supply, high demand position. You take them when they’re available,” Emery said.
Of course, these days, safety seems like a pretty important position as well — especially for the Bears. One would think there has to be at least one available Saturday.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.