Chicago Bears: Corey Wootton

Pre-camp check: Defensive tackle

July, 1, 2014
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Overview: Season-ending ACL tears to Henry Melton and Nate Collins left the Bears exceedingly thin at defensive tackle last season. Determined to avoid a repeat scenario, the Bears spent two early draft picks to inject some youth and increase depth at the position, LSU’s Ego Ferguson (2nd round) and Arizona State’s Will Sutton (3rd round).

Both rookies, along with re-signed veteran Nate Collins, are expected to fight for spots in the Bears’ defensive tackle rotation behind projected starters Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea, after the club allowed Melton and DT/DE Corey Wootton to depart via free agency.

The Bears were pleased enough with Ratliff, a former Pro Bowl player for the Dallas Cowboys, to offer the tackle a new two-year deal in the offseason. Paea, whom the Bears moved up in the second round of the 2011 draft to grab out of Oregon State, is entering the final year of his original rookie contract. For Paea, it’s now or never. He’s shown promise throughout his four-year NFL career, but has struggled to stay healthy and has never truly dominated over an extended period of time in the regular season.

Battle to watch: Will one of the rookies step up? Ferguson and Sutton are different players. Despite Ferguson’s limited body of work at LSU (12 starts), the Bears believe the 6-foot, 309 pound rookie has the traits to be an effective run-stopper at the NFL level. Sutton was an elite pass-rusher with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles-for-loss in 2012, but his production dropped his senior year with the Sun Devils due to weight gain. Both rookies have upside, but neither is a sure-fire lock to make an impact in 2014.

Dark horse: Many believed Collins was on the verge of a breakout year before the knee injury in Week 5. The affable Collins, who played in nine games for the Bears in 2012, has shown the ability to rush the passer. Collins participated in organized team activities and the veteran minicamp, proving that he is fully recovered from the ACL surgery.

Who makes the cut: It just depends on how many defensive linemen the Bears decide to keep on the 53-man roster. Ratliff and Paea (barring injuries) appear to be locks, along with defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Ferguson and Sutton are likely in good shape because of their draft status, and Collins is an experienced reserve. On paper, the Bears seem equipped to carry five tackles, but preseason injuries at other positions can always change the composition of the roster in August and September.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Statistics can be deceiving.

The Chicago Bears clearly looked beyond LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson's modest career collegiate numbers (12 career starts, 85 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and one sack) when drafting him at No. 51 overall.

They obviously believe the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Ferguson will add fresh legs to an already decent rotation at defensive tackle that includes veterans Jeremiah Ratliff, Nate Collins and Stephen Paea. Because the Bears are so high on Ratliff at three-technique, general manager Phil Emery didn't have to necessarily find a Week 1 starting interior defensive lineman in the draft.

After Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman and Florida State's Timmy Jernigan were taken off the board, Ferguson was the next best option in the Bears' mind.

He can stop the run. Ferguson had 58 tackles in 2013 when he was named honorable mention All-SEC. Not to be redundant, but the Bears are determined to find players that thrive in run support.

Word is Ferguson still needs to develop better interior pass-rushing skills.

"You always need to work," Ferguson said Friday night. "I need to improve on pass-rush and my spin move. But one thing I always bring is my heart and my competitive nature. [I'll do] whatever it takes and for however long it takes to win."

Second-round picks are expected to contribute in Year 1, but Ferguson has the luxury of working on his technique with veteran Bears defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni until he's ready to be thrust into a starting role.

Ferguson told reporters at Halas Hall he had a positive meeting with Pasqualoni when he visited the Bears before his pro day.

"[Pasqualoni] has a great personality and he brought me to the office and we were talking ball for a long time," Ferguson said. "He asked me if I can play that two-technique, can I do it? He said that's what the Bears want me for. He showed a lot of interest."

Pasqualoni was an important hire for the Bears in the offseason. With more than 40 years of coaching experience, he is the perfect person to coach up younger defensive linemen that may possess above-average traits, but have yet to garner above-average success.

The Bears are counting on Pasqualoni to refine Ferguson's pass-rushing technique; just as Rod Marinelli did with Israel Idonije, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton before the veteran coach departed for Dallas after the Chicago Bears fired Lovie Smith.

Bears steal Willie Young from Lions

March, 13, 2014
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Lamarr Houston's five-year, $35 million contract was a start, but the Bears had been sending out clear signals the organization intended to further address defensive end via free agency.

Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Young fit the mold of what the Bears were searching for.

While the Bears never had serious interest in former Minnesota Vikings star pass-rusher Jared Allen, Young’s three-year, $9 million signing allows general manager Phil Emery to continue his mission of getting younger on defense, while at the same time stealing a productive player from the division rival Detroit Lions.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
AP Photo/Richard LipskiWillie Young posted 47 tackles and three sacks last season for the Detroit Lions.
Young started 15 games for the Lions last year and recorded 47 tackles and three sacks. But the 6-foot-4, 251-pound edge rusher has a reputation for being extremely disruptive when asked to pressure the opposing quarterback.

Young also has ties to Bears coach Marc Trestman from their time spent together at NC State.

To add some perspective, Julius Peppers was scheduled to earn $14 million in 2014 and eat up $18,183,333 worth of cap space. Young lands in Chicago at a fraction of the cost, and at six years younger than Peppers, figures to have a much greater impact on the Bears’ defense for the next several seasons.

Young probably isn’t a household name in the NFL, but the deal looks solid on the surface.

For all the criticism directed toward the Bears’ secondary in 2013, notably the safeties, the front four needed the most work in the offseason. Houston and Young represent a significant upgrade over what the Bears lined up last year at defensive end when the club barely managed to muster a pass rush or effectively stop the run.

The Bears simply weren’t in a position to wait and see when Corey Wootton recovered from offseason hip surgery to make their second move at defensive end in free agency. Maybe Wootton is back in the mix when healthy (June or July), but with a thin crop of defensive ends expected to be available in May’s NFL draft, the Bears knew they had to be aggressive in free agency in regards to the position.

The respective contracts of Houston and Young speaks to the dire situation the Bears found themselves in on the defensive line. In total, the Bears awarded deals totaling eight years, $44 million to defensive ends, while safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, linebackers D.J. Williams and Jordan Senn and wide receiver Domenik Hixon all received modest deals by comparison.

Instead of rolling the dice on older and somewhat more established defensive ends on the market, the Bears secured the bookends of their defensive line for the future.

In free agency, it isn’t always about reeling in the biggest names. It’s about making the moves that make the most sense for the health of the franchise.
CHICAGO -- Cincinnati Bengals' free agent defensive end Michael Johnson is on the Chicago Bears' radar.

The Bears were one of the teams to inquire about Johnson on Saturday on the opening day of the NFL's legal tampering period leading up the official start of free agency on Tuesday at 3 p.m. CT, according to a source familiar with the situation.

ESPN.com's Minnesota Vikings NFL Nation beat reporter Ben Goessling had reported that seven teams had contacted Johnson's representatives by Saturday evening, including the division rival Vikings.

The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Johnson recorded only 3.5 sacks last season to go along with 56 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles.

However, Johnson, 27, had a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2012.

In five years with the Bengals, Johnson has 26.5 sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles.

The Bears are in dire need of help at defensive end. Veteran Julius Peppers' future with the Bears is cloudy at best considering the eight-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher is scheduled to count $18,183,333 million against the club's 2014 salary cap.

Further complicating matters is that former first-round draft choice Shea McClellin is moving to linebacker next season, and Corey Wootton is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Wootton is currently recovering from offseason hip surgery and not expected to return until the summer.

The Chicago Tribune reported on Saturday the Bears are believed to have expressed interest in free agent defensive end Michael Bennett, whose brother Martellus is the team’s starting tight end.

Addressing the defensive end position is clearly a priority for the Bears in the coming days.

Free-agency primer: Bears

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: Charles Tillman, Henry Melton, D.J. Williams, Major Wright, Devin Hester, Corey Wootton, Josh McCown.

Where they stand: The club informed Hester it won't be re-signing him for 2014, but the Bears are making a concerted effort to try to bring back Tillman. Still, there's a chance the economics won't work out, as Tillman could have other suitors willing to pay more than Chicago. The Bears did some work in re-signing free agents, such as defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, cornerback Kelvin Hayden along with center Roberto Garza, to cap-friendly deals. Negotiations to re-sign McCown have moved along slowly, which means there's a chance the Bears could lose him if another team gives the backup an opportunity to win a starting job. There's interest from both sides in re-signing Williams, and talks are expected to continue over the weekend.

What to expect: At this point, it's unknown where Chicago's pro personnel department has rated its own unsigned free agents against what else is available on the market. So count on the Bears waiting to see what the market value for their own players is before moving to re-sign them, which is actually a smart move that will keep them from overpaying. The Bears aren't expected to overspend on big names in free agency, but general manager Phil Emery has been known in recent years to make a couple of surprise moves. The Bears would like to infuse youth on defense, but that could prove to be a pricey proposition in free agency for a team with limited cap space. They do have the flexibility to free up cash by cutting players such as Julius Peppers, or restructuring Jay Cutler's deal, which includes a base salary of $22.5 million in 2014.

Bears sign DE Trevor Scott

March, 6, 2014
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The Chicago Bears signed veteran defensive end Trevor Scott to a one-year contract, the team announced on Thursday.

Scott has appeared in 76 games with 18 starts over six seasons with the Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 6-foot-5, 260 pound defensive end played in just four games and recorded three tackles for the Bucs last season.

Oakland’s six-round choice (No. 168 overall) in the 2008 NFL draft out of the University of Buffalo, Scott had five sacks for the Raiders his rookie, then registered a career-high seven sacks, 37 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss and 12 quarterback hits in 2009.

Scott also has 20 lifetime tackles on special teams.

The Bears view upgrading the defensive line as one of their top offseason priorities after the unit struggled last season due to injuries and inconsistent play.

Veteran defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff agreed to terms on a new two-year deal on Wednesday, while fellow defensive linemen Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Corey Wootton and Landon Cohen are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the NFL’s new league year begins on March 11. The Bears signed former Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions defensive end Austen Lane to a one-year deal in February.

Another decision looming for the Bears on the defensive line is the roster status of eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers, 34 years old, is scheduled to count $18,183,333 against the Bears’ 2014 salary structure under the terms of his current contract and is fresh off a mediocre 2013 season.
Todd McShay of Scouts Inc. dropped his Mock 3.0 on Thursday with the Chicago Bears staying true to filling their need at defensive tackle in using the No. 14 pick on Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald.
McShay writes: "Donald is a perfect fit for the Bears’ scheme as a 3-technique defensive tackle. I don’t know if there’s been a prospect who has helped his stock more during the draft process than him. He was unblockable at the Senior Bowl, and that, put together with an unbelievable overall workout at the combine. He’s shorter than prototype size, but he has long arms, a powerful upper body and creates a lot of big plays with his anticipation and quickness. FSU’s Timmy Jernigan is a fit as a 3-technique as well, but Donald is a much better finisher as a pass-rusher."


At this point, Donald might make more sense than Jernigan at No. 14 because the Bears re-signed Jeremiah Ratliff on Wednesday, and could benefit tremendously from pairing the young talent with a veteran next season. If Donald doesn’t pan out as a rookie, at the very least he would provide depth at a position that sorely lacked it in 2013 when injuries took hold of the front four.

In 2013, the Bears allowed the most points (478) and total yards (6,313) in franchise history as opponents ran all through through the team's beat-up defensive line and inexperienced linebackers later in the season. Chicago gave up 10 100-yard rushing performances, in addition to a 211-yard effort on Dec. 1 by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.

Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins suffered season-ending injuries in 2013, and both are set to hit free agency. At this point, Collins seems to be more likely than Melton to return in 2014 as the latter will speak to other teams on March 8 when the negotiation window opens.

If the Bears brought aboard Donald, and re-signed Melton, Collins, and Corey Wootton, they'd actually field a pretty formidable rotation up front; at least on paper.

McShay and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. have been pretty consistent in their mock drafts with most of them having the Bears using their 14th pick on a defensive tackles.

Uncertainty currently remains a hallmark along Chicago’s defensive line, as the club needs more than just Ratliff and veteran Stephen Paea, who right now are the only defensive tackles under contract. It’s worth noting that Paea’s contract expires after the 2014 season.

“I feel like I can make an impact right away, feel like I can come in and have trust in the coaches and playbook and make plays right away,” Donald said last month at the NFL combine. “I played nose tackle, played a three-man front in the five-tech, three-tech. I moved around in college a lot. So being versatile the way I am, I feel like that’s a plus for me.”

It could prove beneficial for the Bears, too.

Donald, like Melton, lacks ideal size. But the former Pittsburgh star’s first step is off the charts, a trait he shares with Melton, who was the club’s franchise player in 2013.

The Bears want youth on defense, and when you talk to folks within the organization, the words “tough” and “athletic” seem to be a common themes of the team’s vision for the type of players they’d like to add in the future to that unit. Donald certainly possesses those traits.

The league’s rookie slotting system, which would strap Donald to a cap-friendly contract over the next few years, makes him even more attractive.
Teams around the NFL can start contacting and negotiating with agents of players set to become unrestricted free agents on Saturday, but deals can’t be executed until Mar. 11 at 3 p.m. CST when new league year starts.

As that date quickly approaches, we take a look at Chicago’s pending free agents, and their chances of returning to the team in the second part of our week-long series.

Melton
2014 free agent: Henry Melton

Position: Defensive tackle

2013 statistics: 3 games (three starts); 5 tackles, two quarterback pressures and one fumble recovery.

2013 salary: $8.45M base salary, $4,725 workout bonus -- $8,454,725 cash value.

Outlook: Once the negotiating window opens up on Mar. 8, Melton fully expects to start discussing potential deals with other teams. That expectation comes as a result of talks with the Bears that haven’t quite gone the way Melton’s representatives would have hoped, which is understandable considering he’s coming off a torn ACL, and a recent arrest, not to mention concerns about his level of commitment. Bears coach Marc Trestman has raved about Melton’s rehabilitation, and there’s a desire on the team’s part to bring him back for 2014. But with the team tight against the cap, Melton can’t expect to receive a deal anywhere near the $8.45 million franchise tender he signed in 2014, coming off a Pro Bowl season. Melton will have some suitors, and there’s a chance he could come back to Chicago at a reduced rate.

2014 free agent: Zack Bowman

Position: Cornerback

2013 statistics: 16 games (seven starts); 49 tackles, three interceptions (one touchdown), 10 pass breakups, two tackles-for-loss and three special teams tackles.

2013 salary: $715,000 base salary, $65,000 signing bonus and $5,245.00 workout bonus -- $785,425 cash value.

Outlook: Bowman is expected to test free agency, but the Bears want him to return. At 29 years old with 23 career starts over six seasons, Bowman will probably generate interest from teams in need of depth at the cornerback position. The Bears were pleased with how Bowman performed when he replaced Charles Tillman in the second half of 2013, although it’s unknown if the club is willing to offer the six-year NFL veteran anything above a league minimum contract. Bowman’s leverage would increase if Tillman leaves the Bears via free agency. Bottom line: the Bears are a better team with Bowman on the roster in 2014. It wouldn’t take much to keep him in Chicago, but he is coming off a productive season. That is an important factor to remember.

Wright
2014 free agent: Major Wright

Position: Safety

2013 statistics: 15 games (15 starts); 117 tackles (97 solo), two interceptions, 1 pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.

2013 salary: $1.323M base salary and $5,075 workout -- $1,328,075 cash value.

Outlook: After a solid showing in 2012, Wright came into the 2013 season with high expectations, but regressed to the point at which there’s a perceived need at the safety position. While it appears Wright can be salvaged, it’s expected he’ll test the market because the Bears don’t appear inclined to offer anything more than a veteran minimum type of deal. Wright possesses the skillset to be a solid starter for the Bears moving forward. But his lack of consistency has become such a liability the Bears are likely strongly considering replacing him.

Wootton
Wootton
2014 free agent: Corey Wootton

Position: Defensive line

2013 statistics: 16 games (15 starts); 31 tackles, 3.5 sacks, five pass breakups, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and 4.5 tackles-for-loss.

2013 salary: $1.323M base salary and $5,600 signing bonus -- $1,328,600 cash value

Outlook: The Bears talks with Wootton have likely not surpassed the exploratory phase after the versatile defensive lineman underwent hip surgery in the offseason. It’s simply too early to tell when Wootton will be fully recovered from the procedure, although given Wootton’s work ethic and physical fitness level, he could be ready to return to the field in June. Wootton proved in 2013 that he can be both a viable defensive end and tackle. The ability to bounce inside and line up at tackle should aid Wootton (seven sacks in 2012) when he enters free agency. Wootton is a talented player with impressive size (6-foot-6, 270 pounds) who is extremely well-liked in the locker room. But the Bears will probably wait to see how they address defensive line in free agency and the draft before they make a final decision on the still recovering Wootton. He could be off the market before the draft concludes in early May, but the Bears don’t seem to be in a rush.

Melton drops weight, Bears want him back

February, 20, 2014
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton's recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament has progressed to the point where Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said on Thursday the club's preference is to re-sign Melton who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 11.

"We do want to bring back Henry and we'll work through that process," Emery said at the NFL combine. "He's made progress. He's made positive progress."

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastHenry Melton collected 13 sacks combined in 2011 and 2012, but played in just three games last season.
Slapped with the franchise tag by the Bears last season ($8,454,725) after posting 33 tackles and six sacks in 2012, Melton started just three games before landing on injured reserve on Sept. 27 -- Melton has 15.5 sacks in 48 career games.

After undergoing surgery and sitting out the final three months of the regular season, Melton has apparently dedicated himself to strengthening his injured left knee over the past couple of months.

"He's in every day early," Bears head coach Marc Trestman said. "He's got to drive in from downtown. If you see him, you'll see that he has been training and he has been working. He's very focused. You'll see he dropped some weight. He looks very good physically right now. Obviously he's in there working the knee, but he's been on time, he's working hard with [Bears head athletic trainer] Chris [Hanks].

"As I said, I spoke with him yesterday for 30-45 minutes and he's committed to getting himself back and he's got work to do to get there, but he's in a very good place right now and we all understand the situation and we'll see where it goes."

The Bears' ability to retain Melton is expected to boil down to money. Considered one of the top defensive tackles scheduled to reach free agency, there is no way of knowing how much other teams are prepared to offer Melton when the new league year begins on March 11.

The Bears find themselves in the same situation with the other unrestricted free agents the organization wants to return, namely quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback Charles Tillman and center Roberto Garza.

While the Bears cannot officially re-sign McCown until the beginning of free agency, the team does hold exclusive negotiating rights with the veteran quarterback and can agree in principle to a new deal. McCown posted the third-highest quarterback rating (109.0) when he completed 149 of 224 passing attempts for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in eight appearances (five starts).

"I talk to Josh pretty much weekly, or bi-weekly, I've talked to him two or three times anyways and I've texted with him. He's in the loop into what's going on. I've just called him on a personal level just to catch up with him and see how he sees the league and what's going on," Trestman said. "We just like to talk football. He knows exactly where he stands with us. I think that he's going to take his time, see where things are at, when he's ready to say ‘I want to come back,' I know Phil's going to do everything he can and we're going to do everything can to make sure he is."

Tillman, the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award winner and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, has publicly stated on multiple occasions that his decision to return to Chicago for a 12th season will be determined by the kinds of contract offers he receives.

Meantime, Garza, a 13-year NFL veteran center/guard, will likely have to accept a one-year, veteran-minimum contract with a relatively low signing bonus to stay with the Bears. However, Garza is a respected team captain and the leader of the team's revamped offensive line that started all 16 games together.

"It's a tough business," Trestman said. "We want Roberto back. He knows we want him back. We believe he should finish his career with the Bears. He does so much in our community. He's such a leader in our locker room. He knows how we feel about him. We just need to let this thing evolve and hopefully it's going to work out best, No. 1 for Roberto, because that's No. 1. And from his standpoint, and it should be, he deserves that respect. And hopefully it will work out for the Bears as well. We certainly want to see him back."

Emery also praised free-agent veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams who battled injuries for much of last season. Emery sounded as if the door is still open for Williams to return, and if he does, Williams is expected to compete with Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene for a starting spot.

"Saw a good football player [in Williams]," Emery said. "Saw a guy that has legitimately very good burst. Saw a player that has good instincts, gets around the ball and plays with a relentless style. We were not displeased with his effort. We were very pleased with where he was going and how he was progressing. Obviously, he had some injuries in camp, he had to get his feet back under him and once he did he started producing at a high level."

Other notable unrestricted free agents for the Bears include: defensive lineman Corey Wootton, defensive tackle Nate Collins, return man Devin Hester, safety Craig Steltz, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff and cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Kelvin Hayden.

Bears position outlook: Defensive end

January, 28, 2014
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Free agents: Corey Wootton (DE/DT)

The good: Shea McClellin was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his three sack effort against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 4. McClellin knocked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of the game with a fractured collarbone. Without McClellin’s hit on Rodgers, the Bears probably wouldn’t have been in a position to battle Green Bay for the outright NFC North crown in Week 17. Veteran Julius Peppers led the club with 7.5 sacks. Rookie David Bass returned an interception for a touchdown in a Bears’ win over the Baltimore Ravens.

The bad: In the 15 other regular season games, McClellin managed just one total sack and proved to be a major liability versus the run. The 2012 first-round pick has a combined 6.5 sacks in his first two years in the NFL and could be headed to linebacker. While Peppers had a couple impactful games, he remained silent for much of the season. His future with the Bears is in doubt. 38 of the Bears’ 41 team sacks in 2012 were courtesy of its defensive line. In 2013, the line accounted for 21 of the club’s 31 overall sacks. The Bears’ inability to generate consistent pressure off the edge remained a problem from Week 1. Rookie six-round pick Cornelius Washington appeared in just two games and failed to dress in 11.

The money (2014 salary cap numbers): There is simply no way Peppers can return on his existing salary that calls for the eight-time Pro Bowler to count $18,183,333 against the cap next season. If the Bears release Peppers, they would have to carry $4,183,333 in dead money in each of the next two years, but the move would open up tons of space in 2014 the team could use to target other players and fill existing needs. That’s not to say the Bears wouldn’t welcome Peppers back to the team, but not as his current salary structure. McClellin’s projected cap number is $2,253,654. The Bears need to try and squeeze whatever value they can out of McClellin. Cutting ties with first round picks after two or three seasons is bad for business. Just ask Jerry Angelo. The other defensive ends currently under contract all have small deals that eat up little space.

Draft priority: Urgent. It hurts to have to use another high draft pick on a defensive end only two years after McClellin went in the first round, but this is the reality the Bears find themselves in. The old saying that it all starts up front in the NFL is not just a cliché. It’s true. The Bears have to find young players that can sack the quarterback on a frequent basis. Regardless of what happens in free agency, the Bears are still likely to target a defensive end in the early parts of the draft.

Bears position outlook: Defensive tackle

January, 27, 2014
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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.

The next big thing: Bears

January, 23, 2014
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The Chicago Bears took care of some of the heavy lifting by signing quarterback Jay Cutler to an extension, in addition to bringing back guard Matt Slauson, cornerback Tim Jennings and kicker Robbie Gould.

The Bears now need to turn their attention to three areas: their own free agents, unrestricted free agency and the NFL draft, with drastic improvement of the club’s struggling defense as the No. 1 underlying factor. In all, the Bears have 25 free agents they’ve got to decide whether to bring back, a group that includes key players such as center Roberto Garza, cornerback Charles Tillman, defensive tackles Henry Melton, Nate Collins and Jeremiah Ratliff, along with backup quarterback Josh McCown, linebacker D.J. Williams and defensive end Corey Wootton.

Limited salary cap space will be the main hindrance to bringing back some of their own, as well as any plans to improve by making acquisitions on the open market. Bears general manager Phil Emery admitted the club’s cap space will be tight, but added the team should still be able to improve the roster.

The club has ways to free up space, such as converting Cutler’s $22.5 million base salary for 2014 into a signing bonus it can prorate over the life of his deal or asking other veterans such as Julius Peppers, who counts $18,183,333 against the cap in 2014, to restructure.

Four Downs: Keeping Tucker good call?

January, 16, 2014
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Mel Tucker Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMel Tucker will get another chance to lead the Bears defense next season.
A rough season by the Chicago Bears defense led to some staff changes. Did the right coaches go?

Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears made the correct decision retaining Mel Tucker.


SportsNation

Did the Bears make the correct decision retaining Mel Tucker?

  •  
    46%
  •  
    54%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,553)

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Tucker deserved at least one more season to turn around the defense after a disastrous 2013. This is not about giving Tucker a free pass for the defense ranking near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. This is about looking at the facts. Tucker walked into a situation with a defensive system already in place from the Lovie Smith era. That system worked beautifully under Smith the majority of the time because, in large part, Smith had superstars such as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Julius Peppers all playing at an extremely high level.

But the Bears decided to let Urlacher and veteran strong side linebacker Nick Roach leave in the 2013 offseason, actions that Tucker had nothing to do with. The loss of Urlacher and Roach hurt the Bears’ defense more than the organization would like you to believe. Peppers’ inconsistent play on the defensive line also hurt the team, as did the lack of development of former first-round pick Shea McClellin, who became a liability versus the run.

Finally, factor in all the injuries: Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Turk McBride, Kelvin Hayden, Tillman, Briggs and the training camp retirement of Sedrick Ellis. NFL teams are skewered by the media and public whenever they blame injuries for substandard results, but you cannot ignore what injuries to key players does to a roster. No, the Bears are not the New England Patriots. New England is a well-oiled winning machine that has three Super Bowl championships and 11 postseason appearances under head coach Bill Belichick. New England can lose Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to injuries, Wes Welker to free agency and Aaron Hernandez to a murder allegation and not skip a beat. The Bears, who have missed the playoffs six out of the last seven years, are not on that level. So please, don’t compare the Bears’ predicament last year to the Patriots'. Let’s see how Tucker fares with some tweaks to the system and some changes to the personnel on defense before deciding whether he is the right man for the job.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. What does it say if you fire a defensive coordinator after one season, and a season decimated by injuries, at that? It would say that Marc Trestman and Phil Emery are reactionary and needed a scapegoat after the worst defensive season in Bears history. It would be a different story if Tucker was a personal disaster, a clueless, combustible coach who has turned off players. But all signs point to him being a well-intentioned, organized coordinator who was dealt a lousy hand. He never blamed, he never panicked. On the other hand, if a remodeled Bears defense is bad this year and the young players continue to fail at improving, would it have been better to fire Tucker early rather than fire late? That’s a question to consider next season. But the Bears just hope that Tucker has better players to work with next season.


Second Down

Fact or Fiction: Fired assistants Tim Tibesar and Mike Phair were scapegoats to cover up a much deeper coaching problem.


[+] EnlargeMike Phair
Brian Kersey/Getty ImagesMike Phair, shown coaching Shea McClellin, won't return as Bears defensive line coach next year.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I realize that I just defended the Bears' decision to bring back Tucker for at least one more season, but almost every NFL coaching staff undergoes some turnover when either a team fails to qualify for the postseason or one side of the ball simply falls apart, as the Bears defense did in 2013. That is part of the business. The Bears’ front seven on defense was nothing short of a disaster last year. Subsequently, Phair and Tibesar paid the price. However, I do feel bad for Phair. He was genuinely well-liked and respected by most of the players in the locker room, but he was a holdover from Smith’s coaching staff, which probably made the decision to let him go a little easier, although secondary coach Jon Hoke (another former Smith hire) is expected to remain on the staff.

I bet Phair finds another job in the NFL. Perhaps the Bears felt Phair just didn’t have enough juice in the defensive line meeting room to reach the players. But in Phair’s defense, there is only one Rod Marinelli. Seems kind of unfair to expect Phair to coach at Marinelli’s level at this stage of his career. Tibesar was a bad hire. I’m sure Tibesar is a fine collegiate and CFL coach, but he never connected with the Bears’ veteran linebackers. His lack of NFL experience/credibility hurt him almost from Day 1.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Certainly, when two assistants are fired and the coordinator stays after a wildly disappointing season, it looks like scapegoating. Injuries to the defensive line and linebacking corps led to the season-long failures on defense, not coaching. But I’d surmise that Trestman saw coaching missteps as well. Playing for D.J. Williams and Briggs, rookie linebackers Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene didn’t improve enough by the end of the season. The defensive line was shredded early in the season, but even at full strength, the pass rush wasn’t there. It probably didn’t help that Phair was a holdover from the previous regime. I don’t think there’s a deeper coaching problem and it’s fair to say these firings were at least partially deserved.


Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Corey Wootton's hip surgery diminishes the chances he re-signs with the Bears.


[+] EnlargeCorey Wootton
AP Photo/Jim PrischingDespite his recent surgery, Corey Wootton's team play makes him a good risk for the Bears.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Wootton is a selfless player. He sucked it up and moved inside to defensive tackle for much of the year because of all the Bears’ injuries on their defensive line. We have now found out that Wootton played with a nagging hip injury for the whole season, but in general, he seemed to perform at a reasonably high level despite the fact his sack totals fell from 7.0 to 3.5. Wootton’s ability to play both end and tackle should make him more valuable to most teams in free agency, especially the Bears, who need all the good defensive linemen they can find. My assumption is that Wootton, while still recovering from last week’s hip surgery, will test the open market and see what kind of offers are out there. But in the end, I can definitely envision a scenario where Wootton returns to the Bears. He probably doesn’t break the bank, but it’s not a stretch to think Wootton will receive a slight raise over the $1.323 million base salary he collected in 2013, even if he won’t be completely recovered from the hip procedure until later in the offseason. The 6-foot-6, 270 pound defensive lineman does seem to be entering the prime of his career.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. For one thing, it likely lowers his asking price and interest from other teams in prying him away in free agency. The Bears know his medical history already and unless they’re uncomfortable with it, it seems like they could afford to wait out his recovery time. A locker room mainstay, Wootton sacrificed contract-friendly statistics to move inside and play tackle this season. He’s one of the few members of the defense who should be back. I could see the Bears passing on re-signing him because they need healthy bodies, but since when is health guaranteed in the NFL?


Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Lovie Smith will lure several Bears free agents to Tampa.


[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsNew Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith could try to reunite with some of his former Bears.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Smith’s coaching staff in Tampa is full of ex-Bears coaches. It’s only logical to assume that Smith, who has final say over the Bucs' 53-man roster, will target several of his former Chicago players in free agency. Maybe Smith wants to try and pair Tillman with Darrelle Revis, giving Tampa one of the most seasoned and accomplished cornerback duos in the NFL. Granted, the Bucs started rookie Johnthan Banks opposite Revis last year, but the idea of Tillman and Revis in the same secondary, coached by former Bears assistant Gill Byrd, is an intriguing one.

Devin Hester to the Buccaneers also makes sense. It’s hard to envision the Bears paying Hester, a Florida native and Smith loyalist, $2.107 million to strictly return punts and kickoffs in 2014. Smith probably feels Hester can still contribute at wide receiver for all we know. That appears to be a fit. Perhaps Smith is interested in free-agent defensive tackle Melton joining star pass-rusher Gerald McCoy on the inside of the Bucs defensive line. There are plenty of possibilities and scenarios to mull over. Smith is probably in the process of doing that as we speak.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. I’d guess he’ll make a run at Peanut Tillman, maybe Major Wright or Peppers, if he sees a fit. While Smith is known for building close relationships with players and treating them like adults, the truth is Lovie was really very loyal to a chosen few players -- standouts like Tillman, draft projects like Wright -- and a typical coach to the rest, in terms of their usability at least. If they couldn’t do the job, they were gone. Smith isn’t out to create Halas Hall South in Tampa Bay, he’s there to win and to burnish his reputation. How many Bears free agents would you sign if you want to win immediately? I guess we’ll find out.

Corey Wootton undergoes hip surgery

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
8:28
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CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears free agent defensive end Corey Wootton recently had arthroscopic hip surgery to correct a problem that had caused the four-year NFL veteran discomfort for the past two years, this according to a press release issued on Monday by Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, the location where Wootton underwent the procedure sometime last week.

According to the doctor who performed the surgery, Dr. Benjamin Domb, Wootton had his hip labrum repaired as well as a decompression of a terminal femoroacetabular impingement, a condition that occurs when a person's hip bones are abnormally shaped and therefore rub against the labrum and cartilage, causing joint damage.
Wootton is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the 6-foot-6 defensive lineman recorded 35 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2013. Wootton had a career-high 7.0 sacks in 2012, but was forced to move inside and play heavy snaps at defensive tackle this past season due to a rash of injuries on the Bears' defensive line.

“I'm looking forward to being 100 percent recovered from this, to really showcase what I can do,” Wootton said in the release.

Dr. Domb expects Wootton to make a full recovery from the procedure in time for next season.

NFL players routinely undergo offseason surgical procedures to deal with nagging injuries. Wootton appeared in only 13 regular-season games over his first two years with the Bears because of a variety of health issues, but managed to play in all 16 games in each of the past two seasons.

“Corey is an incredible athlete and physical specimen and generates tremendous power with his body. In order to perform at his elite level, he needs a well-functioning hip,” Domb said. “Now that he has had his hip issue repaired, my expectation is that Corey will perform even better on the field than in previous years.”

In his end of the year press conference, Bears general manager Phil Emery said he expected Wootton to have options in free agency, but Emery noted the club would keep the lines of communications open with Wootton up until and through the start of the new league year on March 11.

“Corey is one of the guys that would transcend scheme,” Emery said. “I was in a 3-4, a pure, straight 3-4 defense in Kansas City and he could have been the right end. If he put a little weight on, he could be the left end. He played under-tackle for us. Actually Corey was most disruptive as a pass-rusher, between the defensive end and defensive tackle, at defensive tackle this year. Now in the past obviously he had a pretty good year a year ago. He's a guy that transcends scheme for us.

We said bye to each other as he was leaving and he knows that we're going to work through it and I know he's going to have options. We're going to be very thorough, like we are with all our evaluations. I'm sure that we'll continue to talk to him.”

Hester, Peppers unsure of futures

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
10:59
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CHICAGO -- Three-time Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester wants clarity on his future with the Chicago Bears.

Hester, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after earning $2,107,523 in the final year of his contract, hopes to hear in the near future if he fits into the Bears’ plans beyond 2013.

Peppers
Hester
“I really want to know right away,” Hester said following the Bears’ 33-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers. “I am the type of guy, I don’t want to go through the whole offseason not knowing where I am going to be at. I want to retire as a Bear. I put in too much hard work here and did a lot of things around here. I am pretty sure the fans want me back, so who knows.”

One of the organization’s most popular players since he debuted in the league in 2006 as a second-round pick out of the University of Miami, Hester said he’s currently in the dark regarding the Bears’ offseason intentions.

“To be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hester said. “It really hurts walking off the field knowing that this could be my last time wearing a Chicago Bears uniform. It’s the most hurtful feeling that I have right now. This is where I was born and raised (as an NFL player). It’s not like I played three years somewhere else or six years somewhere else, but I know this is a business.

Everything I had in me I left it all on the field tonight. We just came up short.”

Hester returned a punt 49 yards in Week 17 while also handling five kickoffs for 127 yards. In his first season of being exclusively a return man, Hester finished 2013 with a 27.7 yard average on kickoff returns and 14.2 yard average on punt returns, including an 81-yard touchdown.

He joins a long list of prominent Bears players with expiring contracts. Among the players on the list: quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive lineman Corey Wootton, safety Major Wright, center Roberto Garza, linebacker James Anderson and left guard Matt Slauson.

The future of veteran defensive end Julius Peppers is also in doubt. Although Peppers is under contract through 2015, he is currently projected to count $18,183,333 against the Bears’ salary cap next season. Peppers lead the Bears this year with 7.5 sacks, but he didn’t look nearly as dominant as he had in previous seasons.

“I’m not sure, I don’t know [what’s going to happen],” Peppers said. “I’m in a contract. You’ll need to talk to a decision-maker about that.”

The Bears failed to extend player contracts for almost the entire season until they re-signed kicker Robbie Gould and fullback Tony Fiammatta in the week leading up to the Packers game. General manager Phil Emery is expected to work quickly in the coming weeks to try to re-sign some of his own free agents that he views as long-term parts of the team.

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