By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Just a year after the Bears spent nearly $35 million guaranteed on three defensive ends in free agency, more pressure off the edge remains atop the team’s long list of offseason needs.
The trio of Lamarr Houston ($14.9 million guaranteed), Willie Young ($3.95 million) and Jared Allen ($15.5 million) combined for 16.5 of the team’s 39 sacks in 2014. That total is a modest upgrade over the previous season’s total of 31, which was the lowest output in the league. For the second straight season, the Bears had the lowest number of sacks in the NFC North.
Complicating matters, both Houston (ACL) and Young (Achilles) are rehabbing from serious leg injuries that may impact their availability during offseason programs as the team installs a new scheme with new terminology.
History suggests the Bears could be looking for an edge rusher with their seventh overall pick in this year’s draft. Coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio arrived in Denver and San Francisco, respectively, in 2011. Both franchises opted for pass rushers with their first selection. The Broncos selected Texas A&M “Joker” linebacker Von Miller and the 49ers selected Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith, whom they converted to a stand-up weak-side linebacker in their 3-4 front. Even new general manager Ryan Pace’s Saints selected a pass rusher, taking Cal defensive end Cam Jordan.
Fox and Fangio inherit a team built to play a 4-3 front, with only but a few pieces that transcend scheme. Regardless, in a division that features star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, the Bears need to procure a premier pass rusher, independent of scheme.
Fortunately, edge rusher may be the deepest of all position groups in this spring’s draft. With the No. 7 pick, the Bears should be in a prime position select a difference-maker on the edge.
Defensive linemen and linebackers perform on the field this Sunday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, and here are some prospects to keep an eye on.
Randy Gregory (6-foot-6, 240 pounds, junior, Nebraska)
Gregory primarily played as a hand-on-the-ground right and left defensive end in a 40-front at Nebraska, but he occasionally rushed from a two-point stance. He’s an elite athletic specimen with long arms, which allow him to win engagements with leverage. Arm length is an important trait as it can make it difficult for offensive linemen to get to a pass rusher’s pads and body.
Gregory converts speed to power off the edge and is able to get blockers on their heels to dictate the engagement. He plays with functional strength to strike and separate from blockers. Gregory displays suddenness, fluid change of direction and elite closing speed in the offensive backfield.
Gregory can lose gap integrity against the run and needs to become better at block recognition. He also needs to develop a wider arsenal of pass rush moves. Given his frame, Gregory could put on 15-20 pounds and not sacrifice flexibility or quickness. He should be a top-five selection in April.
Dante Fowler Jr. (6-foot-3, 261 pounds, junior, Florida)
Fowler played both as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end and a stand-up outside linebacker at Florida. He’s a solidly built, quick-twitch athlete with an explosive first step off the edge.
Fowler’s motor runs high, and he’s a relentless player in pursuit while also showing discipline on backside contain. He’s a flexible athlete who keeps his shoulders low on dip moves, forcing linemen to lunge, which he quickly counters with inside rip and spin moves.
Fowler’s vision in the backfield can be suspect, as he missed chances at impact plays that could’ve gone for negative yardage. He’s still raw as a pass rusher and needs to develop as a hand fighter. Against the run, he has a tendency to stop his feet when trying to locate the ball-carrier, which allows him to be turned.
Bottom line, Fowler’s best football is ahead of him. Of all the edge rushers, he has an NFL body with the explosiveness to match and is the best 3-4 rush linebacker prospect in the class. He should be a top-10 selection in April.
Shane Ray (6-foot-3, 245 pounds, redshirt junior, Missouri)
Ray was primarily used as a right defensive end in Missouri’s 40-front, but he was kicked inside on occasion to rush from the three-technique. Ray has his hand and footwork tied together better than any prospect in this class and rushes with a plan. He has the ability to set blockers up with his feet to get them off-balance before ripping back inside.
Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski has a knack for identifying and developing NFL talent along his defensive line — Aldon Smith and Sheldon Richardson, to name a couple — and Ray is the next in line. He’s a technician but can also win with explosive athleticism.
Ray will likely test well in all of the speed drills, but his height and weight will be critical. He’ll need to add on 15-20 pounds at the next level, but he doesn’t possess the physique of Gregory or Fowler, which may make him stiff in his movements. He can be overpowered and washed out of plays. Ray should be a top-10 selection in April.
Alvin “Bud” Dupree (6-foot-4, 264 pounds, senior, Kentucky)
Dupree primarily played weak-side outside linebacker in a 30-front, but he also took some snaps at defensive end in Kentucky’s 40-front looks. He’s another elite athlete with an NFL-ready physique who is explosive on tape.
Dupree has fluid hips to spot drop in pass coverage, and he can also quickly come off of his drop and drive downhill against the run. He’s a physical force player against the run and packs a punch when he arrives.
Dupree needs to become quicker in reading his keys, but his athleticism makes him one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He’s solidly built and looks to be an ideal rush outside linebacker in a 30-front. Dupree should be a top-20 selection in April.
Vic Beasley (6-foot-2, 235 pounds, redshirt senior, Clemson)
Beasley rushed as both a hand-on-the-ground defensive end and outside linebacker at Clemson. He’s another explosive edge rusher with elite first-step quickness off the snap. He quickly gets up the field into his pass rush lane and forces offensive linemen to speed up their pass rush set, which frequently gets them off-balance, allowing Beasley to win with his feet and a devastating spin move.
A former running back, Beasley has excellent footwork and loose hips, which allow him to quickly redirect and get back to full speed. He uses his long arms to jar blockers and win with leverage. When he’s unable to get home, he still disrupts passing lanes by getting his arms up to bat passes and distort the quarterback’s view and throwing lane.
Beasley may be viewed purely as a 3-4 rush backer, but he has the ability transcend scheme and play on the outside in a 4-3 as well. He has a slighter build and will need to add bulk to stand up to offensive tackles. Beasley can bend, dip and rip off the edge, but he needs to add more moves to disengage. Beasley should be a top-25 selection in April.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.