Monday, January 27, 2014
Bears position outlook: Defensive tackle
By Jeff Dickerson
2014 free agents: Landon Cohen, Nate Collins, Henry Melton, Jeremiah Ratliff and Corey Wootton (DT/DE).
The good: Wootton proved flexible enough to move inside after Melton and Collins were lost for the season due to knee injuries. Although Wootton was bothered by a hip issue that eventually required offseason surgery to correct, the versatile free-agent defensive linemen managed to record 31 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 12 quarterback pressures. Bears general manager Phil Emery was non-committal about Wootton’s future with the club at the end of the regular season, but did remark that, “I’m sure that we’ll continue to talk to him.” Wootton is expected to need several months to rehabilitate his surgically repaired hip before he receives the necessary medical clearance to resume football-related activities without restrictions. Ratliff, a nine-year NFL veteran who the Bears added to the roster later in the year, did a serviceable job in the final five games and is another candidate to return.
The bad: How much time do you have? Decimated by injuries (Melton, Collins and Stephen Paea) and the surprise retirement of Sedrick Ellis on the eve of training camp, the Bears were exposed up the middle in the run game and failed to generate an acceptable pass rush. Six opponents rushed for at least 198 yards versus the Bears. Some of those running lanes between the tackles against the Bears defense can best be described as monstrous. Remove Wootton from the equation and the entire defensive tackle group combined for only 4.0 sacks over the entire season. Melton played in just three games despite pocketing $8,454,725 as the club’s franchise-tag player. Not surprisingly, the team recently parted company with defensive line coach Mike Phair.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Thankfully, the Bears have next to nothing allocated to the position. With almost the entire group currently scheduled to be off the books, the highest projected cap figure belongs to Paea -- $1,172,787. Although the Bears tied up a good portion of their 2014 salary-cap space with extensions for quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerback Tim Jennings, left guard Matt Slauson and kicker Robbie Gould, there are options available to open up more space to potentially add a proven defensive tackle in free agency if necessary.
Draft priority: Urgent. The Bears must begin the task of rebuilding the defensive line. Emery promised a younger defense in 2014. The only way to accomplish that is by finding high-impact defensive players in the draft who can contribute immediately. Selecting a defensive tackle in the early rounds appears likely.