Free Agency Previews
Bears addressed pass rush last draft but not necessarily enough
The single biggest reason the Bears were 10-6 last season, apart from the historic run of takeaway TD’s, was the defensive line. The defense finished third in points allowed and fifth in yards given up, and second in interceptions per pass play, usually a function of pass rush.
The run-up to the start of free agency has situations to resolve, whether re-signing current linemen or restructuring contracts to create salary cap maneuvering room.
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In the run of five losses in six games that cost the Bears the postseason, the Bears allowed no fewer than 113 rushing yards in those five games. And the pass rush netted just 11 sacks in the six games with what amounted to the season on the line.
The line sent tackle Henry Melton and end Julius Peppers to the Pro Bowl primarily on the strength of their pass rush. Melton, in a contract year, produced a second straight impact year, following his seven sacks of 2011 with six last season and a team-high 24 quarterback pressures despite missing two games and playing just 58 percent of the defensive snaps.
Peppers was Peppers. In his 11th NFL season, he recorded 11.5 sacks, his most since 2008, and played 797 snaps that included 80 percent or higher in five of the last six games.
Three players commanded particular attention. Corey Wootton had what he and the Bears hope was his breakout season, taking over as the starting left end from Israel Idonije and finishing with seven sacks to go with 12 quarterback pressures.
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Not to be dismissed, Idonije totaled 7.5 sacks playing on a one-year deal and again demonstrated the ability to be a factor either at end or tackle. The Bears already have expressed a desire to have him back.
Stephen Paea was slotted primarily as a nose tackle alongside Melton. But the Bears traded up in the 2011 second round to draft him and teams do not usually trade up for a 285-pounder if the plan is for him to be a nose tackle. Paea’s upside was becoming evident with his all-around play, which included increasing work at the three-technique.
The investment of a first-round pick in Shea McClellin was questioned at times only because various other members of his draft class (Bruce Irvin in Seattle, Chandler Jones in New England) were off to higher-impact starts.
But McClellin, while finishing with just seven tackles and 2.5 sacks, also produced 14 quarterback pressures in addition to appearing in a spectrum of roles and positions. Whether he remains exclusively a defensive end is unlikely but the flexibility he exhibited gives the new coaching staff critical options going into 2013.
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Nate Collins was an underrated pickup and factors into the plans at tackle for next season.
Needs assessment: 2 (1-10 scale)
The play of Idonije, Peppers and Wootton provide a strong, if senior (Idonije and Peppers are 30+), core at end, with or without McClellin in the mix.
Tackle is solid with Collins, Melton, Paea and Matt Toeaina, although Collins and Melton are on expiring contracts. If either Collins or Paea take a step forward even close to those of Melton and Wootton, a strength of the defense will remain one.
Re-signing Melton has been a priority even back into late 2012 and involved the franchise tag when no long-term deal was in sight with tag deadline approaching. The stated plan of incoming coordinator Mel Tucker is to retain core elements of the existing defense, and a pass-rushing defensive tackle is axiomatic to any defense, regardless of particulars.
Idonije was among the highest rated defensive ends according to Pro Football Focus even with shared time between end and tackle. With 20.5 sacks over the past three seasons, retaining Idonije is a key part of maintaining the standard of the defense as young players like Paea, Wootton and safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright develop into the next generation of foundation players.
Finding a fit for McClellin will be a focus of Tucker’s regime. The Bears have eschewed heavy blitzing by linebackers as Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher have gotten deeper in their careers.
But McClellin projects to more than strictly either a hand-on-the-ground end or run-stopping linebacker. Coaches typically work to get their 11 best football players on the field and McClellin suggests similarities with Roosevelt Colvin of a decade ago, an edge rusher conveniently disguised as a strong-side linebacker.
Best free-agent options (based on value, fit)
Henry Melton, BEARS -- If a decision is that Paea can anchor the middle, Melton’s price may ultimately be more than the Bears want to pay. Not likely, however. When you have one of the league’s best, you keep him, which the franchise tag says the Bears thoroughly understand.
Nick Collins, BEARS -- The salary cap being what it is, with heavy money tied up in Melton and a commitment to Paea, role players are essential and Collins showed ability in limited duty last season.