By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) After months of speculation, unbridled anticipation and just a smidgen of hype, the 2014 NFL Draft is in the books.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the draft is that it allows fans an opportunity to see the roster through the eyes of the people calling the shots. It provides some closure about perceived needs versus real needs, and it allows some conclusions to be drawn.
After two largely lackluster draft classes and a defense in desperate need of a young talent infusion, Bears general manager Phil Emery carried a lot of weight into last weekend.
As is the task for any general manager of a team with realistic playoff expectations, he must simultaneously add impact talent while building for the future. Achieving that balance is a challenge and a mixture of art and science.
After a brief-yet-sufficient reflection period to take in the moves Emery’s made in both free agency and the draft, here are some thoughts that have been milling about my grey matter.
Emery builds front to back
Yes, the Bears’ top selection — Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller — plays in the secondary; however, when you combine the dollars spent in free agency with the fact that both of the Bears’ Day 2 selections were spent on defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, Emery believes in building the defense from front to back.
This has been a long-standing approach to building a roster, with the thought being a strong defensive line can make up for a mediocre secondary and not the other way around.
The 2013 Seahawks’ dominant secondary challenged this notion, as the elite talent at the third level of their defense enabled them to be more aggressive with their defensive fronts (predominantly 8-man). But they also deployed a deep rotation of defensive line talent.
In either approach, keeping pass rushers fresh late in games is critical and has a proven, successful track record.
The Bears had an opportunity to make a play on some top-end safety talent in free agency and had their choice of the best safety prospects in the draft, yet they twice chose to go in a different direction.
When you reflect back upon last season — which I don’t advise — the lack of young, quality depth on the defensive line was exposed and had a cascading effect on the rest of the defense.
In a gap-control defense, when you can’t fit the run with your front four, it compromises the integrity of the entire defense. The Bears’ young linebackers routinely filled the wrong gaps, and their safeties took poor angles to the ball. Some 2,583 rushing yards later, the Bears’ record books for futility were re-written, and Emery had to correct the course.
Changes along the defensive front
Five new players, three new coaches.
When you start thinking about the Bears’ offseason in those terms, it becomes evident that there will be more variety and creativity along the defensive front in 2014.
Breaking it down, those five new players each possess a unique skill set for three coaches with decades of experience running multiple defensive fronts to work with.
At its core, football is all about deception.
On defense, creating pre-snap conflict and confusion in protection schemes by showing multiple fronts leads to post-snap disruptions.
Quarterbacks have to process and communicate a variety of pre-snap reads and keys in a finite period of time. For years, the Bears gave opposing quarterbacks fairly static pre-snap looks, but that’s going to change this fall. One of their newest players told us so.
During his conference call with the media, Ferguson revealed that defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni wanted him specifically to man the two-technique defensive tackle. Over the past decade, the under tackle — or one-gap three-technique — has become a household term for Bears fans, so what’s different about the two-technique role?
Fundamentally, the two-technique is a run-stuffer who lines head up on the offensive guard (for more information about techniques and alignment, please refer to and bookmark this column I wrote), which implies two-gap responsibility.
At their core, the Bears will remain a 40-front, one-gap defense, but this request of Ferguson by Pasqualoni implies that won’t be their only look, and you can expect some hybrid fronts.
Looking back at Cowboys tape from 2010 — Pasqualoni’s last season in the NFL in which he served as defensive coordinator and the defensive line coach — Dallas was a 3-4 base, in which current Bear Jeremiah Ratliff manned the nose tackle (zero/one-technique shade). They used the two-technique defensive tackle as a two-gap lineman to attack the guard and effectively occupy both the A and B gap.
Thus, the Bears’ defense will be attacking both the gaps between offensive lineman (one-gapping) and the lineman themselves (two-gapping).
The more a defense gives an offense to consider and prepare for, the better. In 2013, the Bears were last in the league in sacking the quarterback. To change that trend, it will take a combination of new talent and philosophy.
Add up all the moves Emery’s made on the defensive line, and he’s taken away every excuse for defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and put him in a “prove-it” year.
Roster still not finished
Undoubtedly, the Bears are a deeper and more talented roster than they were heading into 2013. However, there’s still work to be done.
Taking inventory of all the positions, it’s safe to assume the Bears will be closely monitoring veteran cuts at safety, tight end and linebacker.
Bears vice president of football administration and general counsel Cliff Stein has been his usual busy self, already reaching agreements with all of the Bears’ eight draft picks. Under the new CBA, rookie deals have become fairly boilerplate.
Currently operating under the offseason “Rule of 51,” the Bears have approximately $6.186 million in free cap space.
As I always stress, the cap is a fluid situation, so the Bears are positioned to make a run at a player if the opportunity arises.
Undrafted free agent (UDFA) stats
Finally, some food for thought.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello had an interesting tweet last week:
Big day for rookies not drafted. 31 percent of active NFL players last year were not drafted as rookies. Also15 members of #ProFootballHOF.— Greg Aiello (@gregaiello) May 11, 2014
Given the fact that nearly one in three of players on active rosters went undrafted trivializes all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the draft.
Yes, the majority of NFL superstars were drafted — typically early — but players like Wes Welker, Tony Romo, Arian Foster and Antonio Gates weren’t.
I suggest writing Jordan Lynch and/or Christian Jones’ names in pencil instead of ink on the Bears final 53-man roster, but there’s clearly an established precedent for players who don’t hear their names called.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin