2014 Bears outlook: Defensive line

2014 Bears outlook: Defensive line
February 4, 2014, 9:15 am
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This is the first in a series looking back at the Bears' 2013 season, by position. Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin is breaking down where each position group succeeded and failed this past season, where it needs to get better and how the personnel may look different next season after free agency.

Overview: Normally assessing defensive end and tackle as separate positions would be in order. But where injuries dictated too many of the personnel moves for 2013, the Bears expected to approach their 2014 scheme with creativity by choice, at least at the outset, and that points to interchangeable parts in a fashion similar to the 4-3 model of the Seattle Seahawks.

The Bears began 2013 with four new starters on the offensive line. They may begin 2014 with nearly that many on the defensive side this season.

2013: The defensive woes of 2013 traced most directly to injuries on the line, which went into the season with Pro Bowl’ers at end (Julius Peppers) and tackle (Henry Melton), and an end (Corey Wootton) coming off a breakthrough ’2012 with seven sacks. The defense ranked eighth in ’12 in both pass and rush yards allowed and third in scoring.

That came unglued when Melton and backup Nate Collins were lost to season-ending knee injuries, Wootton, who needed post-season hip surgery, was needed inside, and Peppers slumped (7.5 sacks), his second-lowest production in the last 10 years. Emergency stop-gaps like Zach Minter, Cheta Ozougwu, Tracy Robertson and Christian Topou were thrown in before former Dallas Cowboys Landon Cohen and Jeremiah Ratliff were added.

[MORE: Seahawks defense 'legend' doesn't work]

Shea McClellin in his second season flashed with three sacks at Green Bay but only one in the other 13 games he played.

Looking ahead: Free agents: Cohen, Collins, Melton, Ratliff, Wootton.

The Bears have interesting options with McClellin and end David Bass in particular, whether to use as edge rushers or hybrid linebackers the way the Seahawks did with former No. 1 pick Bruce Irvin. But with so many veterans on expiring contracts, the first order of business is to determine exactly how the defensive scheme will function.

A second is deciding whether Peppers fits both the scheme and the financial structure. Both are significant questions. His pending base salary of $13.9 million is expected to dictate a pay cut (not simply a restructuring to push money into future years). And while Peppers in his prime was a fit in virtually any scheme, the 33-year-old version is not.

[MORE: Where do the Bears rank in the NFC North heading into 2014?]

Strategies: Besides specific personnel decisions, the Bears need to decide whether their defensive front is big enough. Injuries were not the only reason the Bears were being blown off the ball. Ratliff (303 pounds) is the only starter bigger than 300, and Stephen Paea, playing at about 290, was not stout enough at nose tackle.

The Bears cannot rely solely on the draft or re-signing their own to staff up a run defense and pass rush. Carolina’s Pro Bowl end Greg Hardy and Seattle’s Michael Bennett will be in demand, but Bennett is reportedly high on the Seahawks’ re-sign list, and Hardy is expecting “a crapload” of money from someone. Whether the Bears will be willing to make that phonecall early in free agency looms as a significant first consideration.

2014 Position Outlook Series

Part 1: Defensive Line 

Part 2: Quarterback

Part 3: Linebackers

Part 4: Receivers

Part 5: Offensive Line

Part 6: Defensive backs

Part 7: Running backs