NFL Nation: defensive tackle

Countdown to Combine: Bears

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
9:00
AM ET
With the NFL combine starting Feb. 22, here's a look at the Chicago Bears' positions of need and which prospects the team might be looking taking a closer look at in Indianapolis. Positions of need are listed in order of importance.

Position of need: Defensive tackle

The Bears lost two defensive tackles in franchise player Henry Melton and his reserve, Nate Collins, over a span of 15 days last season, leading to a domino effect that would collapse the entire defense into ineffectiveness, not to mention failure of historic proportions.

The Bears gave up the most points (478) and total yards (6,313) in franchise history, and in the process surrendered 10 100-yard rushing performances, in addition to a 211-yard outing by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Bears general manager Phil Emery took responsibility for the Bears not having a successful contingency plan up front to counteract all the losses.

"It starts with me," Emery said at the end of the season. "We had injuries. They are not an excuse. So for me, I have to look at did we have enough depth to win football games? The answer is no. From a personnel perspective, from my perspective, I had not done enough to provide enough depth. We were at least one defensive lineman short. At the tackle position going into the season, for that fourth tackle, we felt like we had a tackle signed in Sedrick Ellis; that didn't work out (because he retired on the eve of training camp. That's on me. The fact that we couldn't replace Sedrick, that's on me. We didn't have enough pass rush from the outside or the inside. We needed one more."

Look for the Bears to try to fulfill that need in May during the NFL draft.

Melton and Collins are free agents, as are Jeremiah Ratliff and versatile end/tackle Corey Wootton, who is recovering from offseason hip surgery, and Stephen Paea is entering the final year of his original rookie deal.

Three players the Bears might be targeting

Timmy Jernigan, Florida State: Projected as a penetrating one-gap defensive tackle, Jernigan fits Chicago's scheme, provided it decides to continue to operate out of a 4-3 front in 2014. Jernigan appears to have more upside than Melton in terms of his ability to disrupt running plays in the backfield. At the very least, Jernigan could come in and become a part of the team's defensive line rotation as a rookie if he doesn't outright win a starting job.

Louis Nix III, Notre Dame: Probably not an ideal fit for a one-gap scheme, but has ideal size to produce as a two-gapping 3-4 nose. The question is whether the Bears plan to transition over to that front. If so, Nix might be the perfect foundation for that construction project. Based on the team's current personnel, it might not be ready just yet to make the 3-4 transition, which means Nix might not be Chicago's man at No. 14.

Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh: Not as tall as Melton, but similar in terms of weight (288 pounds, but he could easily get up to 300) and skillset. Like Melton, Donald is probably most disruptive as an interior pass-rusher, but some scouts think he might be capable of holding the point consistently as a run defender. Donald fits what the Bears do defensively, but again, the caveat is whether the team decides to continue running the current scheme in 2014.
 
  Getty Images
  A good case could be made for Shaun Rogers, Haloti Ngata or Casey Hampton as the best defensive lineman in the AFC North.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

It was the debate that just wouldn't end last week.

Who is the top interior defensive lineman in the AFC North: Casey Hampton, Haloti Ngata or Shaun Rogers?

What started as a simple question turned into a heated topic of discussion. The comment section for "Take your pick" and our AFC North inbox has been filling up since the question was first posed June 1.

Everyone had very good points to make for these three stud defenders. Therefore, this week we decided to reopen this challenging debate.

Here is an in-depth look at each player highlighted by an AFC North final say:

Casey Hampton
#98 DT
Pittsburgh Steelers

2008 STATS
TACK SOLO FF INT SACK
22 13 0 0 1.0

Casey Hampton, Pittsburgh Steelers

Case for: Hampton is the top run-stuffer for the NFL's most dominant defense. Playing nose in a 3-4 defense is extremely difficult because of the constant double teams. Yet "The Big Snack" has done it seamlessly and with ease for nine straight seasons. His two Super Bowl championships are accomplishments unmatched by his two counterparts and a testament to his dominance and consistency.

Case against: Hampton, 31, is very one-dimensional. He's tremendous against the run but doesn't give you much in terms of pass rush. Hampton only has 5.5 sacks for his career. In fact, Hampton often is subbed on obvious passing situations and has become mostly a two-down player at this point in his career. Weight also has become an issue in recent years.

Reader's take: Jim from Zanesville writes: James, it is clear the deepest group of defensive tackles reside in the AFC North. The only reason we can compare those 3 DTs is because they are in a 3-4. There is a big difference between a DT in a 3-4 and a 4-3 (ask Tank Johnson). That being said, I have to go with Hampton. With two rings and being the centerpiece of the best defense in the league last year, "Big Snack" is where it's at! Ngata is also a proven commodity, but he's not better than Hampton -- not yet. Rogers hasn't proven himself to me as a 3-4 NT. He is a great athlete no doubt, and we'll see more this year. But he's third on my list for now.

Haloti Ngata
#92 DT
Baltimore Ravens

2008 STATS
TACK SOLO FF INT SACK
55 43 0 2 1.0

Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens

Case for: Ngata is the most athletic and versatile of the group. He can play defensive tackle, defensive end and occasionally drops into coverage, as evidenced by his three career interceptions (two in 2008). Like Hampton and Rogers, Ngata is extremely hard to move off the line of scrimmage, but he's also athletic enough to avoid blockers chopping at his legs to stay active in plays. He's very durable and hasn't missed a start during his three-year career (48 straight games, 52 including playoffs).

Case against: At 25, Ngata also is t
he youngest of the group. He hasn't fully reached his potential, and sometimes Ngata's competitive mean streak on the field can get the best of him. His tackle and sack numbers decreased in 2008 from the season before, even though Baltimore's overall defense improved.

Reader's take: Bobby from Pittsburgh writes: I'm a die-hard Steelers fan. However, I think Ngata is the best DT in the AFC North. At 25, he has already been dominant on a dominating defense. I think Shaun Rogers had his last good year and will not be a force this year or in the future. Casey Hampton is also declining. Hampton may still finish with the best stats, two shiny Super Bowl rings and a dominant career. But Ngata is the better DT and his career is just beginning. Ngata hasn't hit his prime yet while the other two are past theirs.

Shaun Rogers
#92 DT
Cleveland Browns

2008 STATS
TACK SOLO FF INT SACK
76 61 0 0 4.5

Shaun Rogers, Cleveland Browns

Case for: Rogers had arguably the best season of any defensive lineman in 2008, recording 76 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Despite Cleveland's awful 4-12 record, Rogers made the Pro Bowl last season as an alternate, which carries a lot of weight because the coaches and players pick the reserves. When Rogers is inspired and motivated, which we saw last year, he is among the NFL's top defensive players at any position.

Case against: The problem with Rogers always has been inconsistency. Hampton and even the younger Ngata have shown the ability to be consistently dominant week in and week out. Rogers doesn't have the same track record over his eight NFL seasons. Playing for mostly losing teams with the Detroit Lions could be one reason. But at the same time, it is puzzling that a player as good as Rogers failed to lift his team or defensive units to become more dominant.

Reader's take: T.J. from Bedford, Ohio, writes: This take your pick question is pretty easy in my opinion. I may be biased towards Shaun Rogers being a Browns fan but numbers don't lie. Rogers dominates Hampton and Ngata statistically and he is the best defender on his team, with the same being arguable at best for Hampton and Ngata. Last year Rogers had linebacker-like numbers with 76 tackles, with 61 of those being solos. Hampton and Ngata combined for 77 tackles (Hampton 22, Ngata 55). Rogers also dominated in terms of sacks, with 4.5 being more than double what Hampton and Ngata had combined. Sorry Stiller and Ratbird fans but this is a question of best player, not the best defense. So it goes to Rogers by a landslide!

AFC North final say

James Walker: It's hard to go wrong with any of these three players. But the AFC North blog's pick for top interior defensive lineman in the division is Haloti Ngata, because of his youth, consistency, pure athleticism, upside, versatility and track record as a winner. Ngata is the only player who currently embodies all of these traits. Hampton is a consummate winner and an ideal nose tackle for a 3-4 defense. But he's 31 and a two-down player. Rogers dominated in 2008 and his stats were off the charts. But he's 30, inconsistent and has never played for a winning team. Ngata is the complete package with significantly less mileage, making the Raven the clear choice.

As always, I appreciate everyone's participation. A special thanks goes to T.J. from Bedford, Ohio; Jim from Zanesville, Ohio; and Bobby from Pittsburgh.

For future "Take your pick" or "Thought of the day" topics, feel free to send them to our AFC North inbox.

SPONSORED HEADLINES