The Chicago Bears experienced a youth explosion at the defensive tackle position in 2012 with starters Henry Melton and Stephen Paea coming into their own, which bodes well for the team's future provided they can re-sign Melton in free agency.
A pending free agent, Melton tied for third in the NFL among defensive tackles with a career-high six sacks in 2012 on the way to his first Pro Bowl nod. Paea, meanwhile, bounced back from an injury-riddled rookie season to start 14 games in which he posted 30 tackles, 2.5 sacks and eight quarterback pressures.
So if the Bears bring back Melton, who is expected to command a hefty salary, they don't need to dip into the free-agent market for anything other than depth at reasonable costs.
Stephen Paea started 14 games in 2012 after an injury-riddled rookie season.
A scheme change also isn't expected to take place up front, given new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's experience coaching 4-3 units in Jacksonville. Under Lovie Smith, the Bears preferred a penetrating, pass-rushing under tackle (Melton) to pair with a run-stopping nose tackle (Paea). But when Tucker worked in Jacksonville, the Jaguars wanted more size and run-stuffing capability from the DT spot.
Given the talent already on hand, Tucker likely won't change much. But eventually the Bears might begin to utilize the DTs in a more traditional sense, as opposed to what the club did in Smith's Tampa-2 scheme.
Should the Bears choose to look internally for depth at defensive tackle, they've got the option of trying to re-sign veterans Nate Collins and Amobi Okoye (unrestricted free agent), players both familiar with the system. A restricted free agent, Collins missed the first six games of last season, but made valuable contributions (13 tackles, three pressures) once the Bears placed him in the rotation. Tucker also is familiar with Collins from their time together in Jacksonville.
Okoye, meanwhile, spent the first 11 games of last season with the Bears, but played in six contests, contributing three tackles and a sack before the club waived him in November. Two weeks later, the Bears brought back Okoye because of a rash of injuries along the defensive line.
It's likely the Bears would consider Collins more of a priority to bring back for next season than Okoye.
Matt Toeaina is also an option, but the club must consider his future given the significance injuries played last season in limiting his production. Signed through 2013 and due a roster bonus of $290,000, Toeaina started in Week 1, but was inactive for 10 of the next 12 games. Toeaina returned to action on Dec. 9, and contributed three tackles in a loss at Minnesota. He missed the next week before finishing the last two games on the injured reserve.
Melton, obviously, is one of the team's priority signings this offseason and they'll be forced to give the four-year veteran a substantial offer or risk losing him.
Don't expect the Bears to be major players in free agency when it comes to acquiring defensive tackles because they're set with Melton and Paea as the starters. If the Bears do anything outside of re-signing their own free agents, they'll do it only with the intention of upgrading the depth.
Here are some potential free-agent targets at defensive tackle listed alphabetically. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the absolute best on the market as much as players that fit the scheme as potential rotational contributors:
Sammie Lee Hill, Detroit Lions: Played in 416 snaps with three starts last season and posted 15 tackles and tipped three passes, in part because of his 6-foot-4, 329-pound frame. Hill also forced 17 quarterback hurries, in addition to notching two quarterback hits.
Jason Jones, Seattle Seahawks: Finished last season on the injured reserve because of a knee injury, and contributed just 10 tackles.
Jones could be an appealing option because of his interior pass-rushing ability. He logged four sacks in 2012 and pressured the quarterback on 10 occasions, but might be a tad too light (6-5, 273) to be a force against the run.
Terrance Knighton, Jacksonville Jaguars: Nicknamed "Pot Roast," Knighton's work habits are sometimes questioned and his effort at times has been inconsistent. At 6-3, 330 pounds Knighton can definitely stuff the run. In addition to posting 32 tackles last season, Knighton also notched two sacks. He's also familiar with Tucker.
Sen'Derrick Marks, Tennessee Titans: A former second-round pick, Marks didn't grade out particularly well last season overall. But he's intriguing because of his interior pass-rushing ability (two sacks, two quarterback hits, 12 pressures) and the fact he seems to be improving against the run.
Kevin Vickerson, Denver Broncos: Played 536 snaps in 2012, and posted 40 tackles, which would have ranked No. 1 for the Bears among defensive tackles, in addition to two sacks and nine pressures. At 6-5, 306 pounds Vickerson possesses a combination of pass rush ability and sufficient size to play the run. He's knocked down eight passes over his career.