Quintet Of Young Bears Should Make Noise In 2014
Despite an abysmal defense, the 2013 Chicago Bears managed to knock on the door of the playoffs, falling one play short. Holding onto a lead with less than a minute on the clock in the season's final game, a blown coverage by the secondary allowed a scrambling Aaron Rodgers to burn the Bears for a 48-yard strike that sealed Chicago's fate. It was a fitting end to a season marred by countless failures and meltdowns on defense. The fact that the rival Green Bay Packers thrust 2013's most painful dagger into the hearts of Bears fans and stole away a playoff spot put an exclamation point on what GM Phil Emery needed to address this offseason.
Now that the free agent acquisitions and draft picks are signed and working with the team in OTAs, the big questions remaining are what help can the new additions provide and how soon can they make an impact? This week, I'll focus solely on the top draft picks that will provide a spark in 2014.
First, let’s review where the Bears left off in 2013. The well-documented demise of the defense started up front with numerous injuries to the defensive line, most notably All-Pro DT Henry Melton. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker put together a patchwork defensive line that included such desperate measures as moving DE Corey Whooten to defensive tackle. The lack of a strong inside line allowed teams to focus their attention on DE Julius Peppers, whose fading capabilities (sorry Packer fans) restricted his impact and made the pass rush almost non-existent. The problems up front created a sieve that allowed running backs to repeatedly gash the inept group and get downfield virtually untouched.
Unable to survive the downfall of the line, the snowball effect was in full swing. By midseason, veteran LBs Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams were lost to injuries and rookie LBs Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene were forced into duty. The duo often proved unable to shed blockers and appeared to jump too quickly out of their gap responsibilities. The overwhelmed linebacking crew offered little resistance to the onslaught of opposing running backs, now fully aware of the potential for big games against the withering Bears defense.
The final blow was a fully exposed backfield. When CB Charles Tillman went down with a season-ending injury, the unit had to rely on undersized CB Tim Jennings as their No. 1 cover man. And while safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright aren't anywhere near Pro Bowl players to begin with, not many defensive backs could perform well with the floodgates in front of them wide open.
So how do Emery and the Bears get a quick fix to support the high-octane offense? Here's my take on the Top 5 contributors from the 2014 NFL Draft.
Draft Impact Player No. 1: Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
It all starts with the defensive line and Sutton is a beast. Aggressive and athletic, he's an immediate starter in the middle and will perform up to the level we once saw from oft-injured Melton, who was lost to the Cowboys during free agency. If Sutton doesn’t make the starting lineup by Week 1, I’ll be shocked.
Draft Impact Player No. 2: Brock Vereen, SS, Minnesota
Vereen is my "show-me" pick that will definitely make an impact based on his versatility at both cornerback and safety. I expect Vereen to compete immediately for a role at safety based on the tremendous need at that position. With aging corners on the roster, his versatility should see him in the Bears backfield on a regular basis. Is Vereen an immediate starter? Probably. There’s some competition with veterans, but I expect to see him on the field from Day One.
Draft Impact Player #3: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Fuller was a great pickup for Chicago and I only place him below Vereen on my impact list because with the bigger need at safety, the door is wide open for Vereen. The most experienced players at the position returning on defense are Tillman and Jennings. That allows the Bears to slowly get Fuller into the mix. With Tillman coming off a season-ending injury and approaching the end of his fantastic career in Chicago, Fuller appears to be a natural replacement - eventually. I can’t see Fuller taking a cornerback spot from the veteran duo unless injuries force the issue. Fuller may find himself on the field at safety or situationally at cornerback Week 1.
Draft Impact Player #4: Pat O'Donnell, P, Miami
I scratched my head when the Bears used a draft pick on a punter, but if you can secure a starter with a late round pick, you should go for it. The job is O'Donnell's to lose and he fills an undervalued and overlooked need. With a rebuilt defense, field position will be paramount and a quality punter can help give the defense some breathing room. O’Donnell is a starter from Day One, no doubt about it.
Draft Impact Player #5: Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU
When you place big bodies on the defensive line, you can keep blockers from reaching your young, athletic linebackers. Just ask former All-Pro and future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher. Early in his career, the Bears big defensive line allowed him to roam the middle and make incredible plays for a hard-hitting defense. Ferguson brings this type of impact to the line, and the biggest benefactors may be Bostic and Greene. Expect Ferguson to split time with veteran DT Jeremiah Ratliff. I don’t see Ferguson as a starter, but I see him in the rotation Week 1. His performance, or that of Ratliff, will dictate how often we see him on the field.
And there you have it - my Top 5 list dealing strictly with draft selections. With that said, I do expect six players to make the cut and contribute in 2014. RB Ka'Deem Carey brings exceptional credentials as a four-year starter at Arizona. Since the Bears dismissed RB Michael Bush, Carey should get plenty of opportunities.
With most of the draft impact coming on the defensive side of the ball, the unit only needs to improve from horrific to bad in order to push the Bears into the postseason in 2014.