Official pre-draft visits and the team’s recent activity indicate the Chicago Bears -- despite investing heavily along the defensive line in free agency -- might still be inclined to at least one selection in the NFL draft to select a defensive tackle.
The club re-signed Jeremiah Ratliff in free agency along with Nate Collins, but Henry Melton left to sign with the Dallas Cowboys. Including rising fourth-year veteran Stephen Paea, who is entering the final year of his original rookie contract, Chicago’s roster features just three bona fide defensive tackles, which means there’s a strong possibility the club adds at the position during the draft.
The question now seems to be when. Holding the 14th overall pick, the Bears could go after Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald, Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III or maybe even take a chance on the talented, but inconsistent Ra’Shede Hageman of Minnesota. The club could also opt to fortify another position with its first-round pick, and then address defensive tackle in the later rounds.
“I’ll say this: I think we have a history of we’re not afraid to take calculated risks, and we’ll continue to do that,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said at the NFL combine in February. “We’ll continue to find players that have upside skills, that have good ceilings in terms of athletically, speed and size, and we’ll piece it together. Obviously, there is a plan in place.”
Contingency plans, too, it appears, based on the way the Bears have conducted business in the weeks leading up to the draft. The Bears attended the University of Florida’s pro day recently to work out defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who worked through drills for scouts for the first time since tearing a right ACL and right meniscus. Interestingly, Bears defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni put Easley through some of the drills. At this point, Easley is projected to be taken in the second round.
The club also recently brought in Nix -- projected to be taken late first in the first round or early in the second -- for an official visit at Halas Hall, and it has also spent time with Arizona State’s Will Sutton. It’s expected the Bears will meet with even more defensive tackle prospects. That’s understandable, given the struggles the defense experience last season in part because of injuries at various spots.
Chicago gave up 161.4 yards per game on the ground last season (32nd in the NFL), and responded in free agency with the signings of defensive linemen Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and reserve Israel Idonije. But even after those signings, Emery made it clear the club’s work wasn’t yet done.
The hope is it’s completed during the NFL draft.
“My personal preference is bigger is always better [in defensive linemen] as long as you’re not sacrificing athleticism and speed,” Emery said. “This is a fast game. But it’s a very physically tough, impactful game, and you need bigger bodies over time to win those matchups.”
Five potential targets
Player, School, Projected Round
1. Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh, 1
2. Timmy Jernigan, Florida State, 1
3. Louis Nix, Notre Dame, 1-2
4. RaShede Hageman, Minnesota, 1-2
5. Dominique Easley, Florida, 2
Position grade: B