Free agency may decide whether Bears draft DE over DT

Free agency may decide whether Bears draft DE over DT
February 25, 2014, 8:15 am
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Bears GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman had positive things to say last week about the rehab status of defensive tackle Henry Melton’s torn ACL. While encouraging reports are far from the same thing as contract negotiations, the sentiments suggested that the kind of base good feelings exist that are paramount to re-signing the injured Pro Bowl lineman.

Why Melton’s health and the Bears’ attitude about it are significant is that what the Bears do in the 2014 draft is potentially connected. Not Melton specifically, but rather what the Bears have at defensive tackle vs. defensive end when their turn comes in the first round of the draft.

Julius Peppers is a supreme longshot to remain a Bear without a substantial pay cut, which is unlikely to work out. Corey Wootton is on the to-do list, but he has been primarily a left end and a complementary pass rusher, not the defense-defining edge disrupter. And Shea McClellin is no longer in that hand-on-the-ground part of the Bears’ 4-3 scheme.

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Seattle Seahawks end/tackle Michael Bennett is headed for at least the talking stages of free agency but is coming off an 8.5-sack season and a $5 million contract. The free-market price for pass rushers is always high, even with the salary cap likely to rise $4-6 million.

With the defense expected to diversify, the true offseason priority is a pass rusher with capabilities for multiple uses. One of the top prospects in this draft class is raising his hand if the Bears are looking for “volunteers:”

"I'm hybrid," said Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy at the current NFL Scouting Combine. "I'm an athlete. I've been able to move around. Fortunately Coach Steck [Dave Steckel] at Missouri, the defensive coordinator, put me in good positions to do so, and I think I did a good job of showing my athleticism."

College pedigree makes Ealy worth listening to, besides the fact that he is 6-4, 273 pounds, the same as Michael Bennett. Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was AFC defensive rookie of the year last season as the New York Jets’ No. 1 pick (No. 1). Aldon Smith was the San Francisco 49ers’ pick at No. 7 of the 2011 draft and has helped the 49ers to the NFC Championhip game and one Super Bowl in his three seasons.

“I compare myself to Aldon,” Ealy said. “He's a freak athlete. He gets off the ball. He probably had a little more sacks than me in college in my career. And to J.J. Watt when it comes to pass deflections.”

Ealy did not help his stock with a mediocre 4.92-sec. time in his Combine 40. But he is heavier than Smith and offers more of an anchor on the edge of a 4-3.

Bears fit

Peppers has been a freak from the standpoint of having right-end speed at 285 pounds. The typical ends in single-gap schemes are not that big, and Wootton has proved to be a solid defender against both run and pass. The need is for speed, period.

I think he's a 4‑3 defensive end,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “I don't really think he's an outside linebacker. I think to compare him to, say, [Aldon] Smith who came out a couple years ago. He's not quite as athletic as Aldon Smith, but he's a little more physical, a little better against the run.”

[MORE: Bears make a pair of under-the-radar signings]

Mayock initially projected Ealy further down in the first round than the Bears’ current spot at No. 14. But “I don't think [14] too high because when you're looking at the pure 4‑3 ends in this draft, they are few and far between.

“[South Carolina’s Jadeveon] Clowney is going to be gone, and Ealy is there at 14, and if he's there, he's a good pick.”