In the final part of my “Fixing the Bears Defense” series, I will look at defensive players the Bears might target in the 2014 NFL draft. There aren’t any glaring holes on offense, so I expect most of this year’s draft picks to be on the defensive side of the ball. Both GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman have harped on adding youth and speed to the defense and there is no better (or cheaper) way to do that than through the draft. I had originally planned to cover all positions in one article, but that would have resulted in a 20 page epic, so I am splitting it into three parts. Today, I’ll look at a few defensive line prospects, then linebackers on Thurs, and defensive backs on Friday. This is just the start of my draft coverage so I’m keeping the lists to 5-6 players per position. I will have more extensive and detailed positional rankings for you later this off-season.
The Bears gave up more rushing yards than ever before in their 92 year history. There were plenty of reasons, but the injuries to DTs Henry Melton and Nate Collins and the incompetent play of their replacements was the main culprit. Injury-prone Stephen Paea is the only DT currently on the Bears roster, so the Bears need to restock by either re-signing some of their current free agents (Melton, Ratliff, Collins), singing NFL free agents, or through the draft. I’m guessing the Bears will dip into all three pools and the DT position will have a different look in 2014. Let’s hope so at least.
The DT position goes about 12-14 players deep in this year’s draft, so the Bears should have the choice of a decent DT prospect through the first 3 rounds. There are no sure things at DT in this draft and a shortage of huge run-stuffers, but there is a strong group of quick, athletic DTs who can collapse the pocket and pressure the QB. Here are some players that the Bears might be looking at in the first few rounds:
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Louis Nix (6’3, 340) ND: Has the physical attributes to be great, but didn’t always play up to his potential in college. Nix was a beast as a sophomore but his productivity decreased his junior year. There was less talent around Nix last year, so he may have been the focus of more double teams and game-planning, but a guy with his rare physical gifts should dominate the college level. Nix’s season was cut short by a knee injury that required surgery, so that may be a concern for some teams and impact his draft position. Other concerns are his ability to keep his weight around 340 and his conditioning. When I watched Nix he would dominate for 2-3 plays in a row and then disappear for long stretches. If healthy and motivated Nix has the tools to be a pro-bowl DT, so the Bears should at least give him consideration if he slips to 14. His floor is a 2-down run-stuffing DT but his ceiling is an elite run-stopper that can generate pressure on passing downs due to his unusual quickness.
NFL comparison: Tommy Kelly
Re’Shod Hageman (6’6, 311) Min: If you haven’t heard of this guy yet, you certainly will after the combine. Hageman is a freak. He supposedly can bench 465 pounds, squat over 500, has a 36″ vertical leap, and runs a 4’7 40. Those attributes at 6’6, 300+ are pretty darn amazing. The physical ability is definitely there, but his football instincts leave a little to be desired. Hageman is a converted TE so doesn’t have a lot of experience playing the DT position and his production last year (2 sacks, 13 TFLs) didn’t consistently match up to his physical gifts. Hageman will be a 1st round pick based on his athleticism alone and even without refined technique he should be a force against the run based on his size and strength. If he gets matched up with a good DL coach who can teach him the position, the sky is the limit for Hageman.
NFL comparison: Calais Campbell
Timmy Jernigan (6’2, 298) FSU: A little smaller than most teams like at DT, but has all the tools to be a dominant interior force. For some reason Jernigan wasn’t as consistently good in college as he should have been. Jernigan looked unstoppable at times, like the national championship game when he had 9 tackles and looked unblockable, but he disappeared for long stretches of most games this season. Enough raw talent is there for a team to take Jernigan in the 1st round, but he might slip into round 2 due to questions about his “motor”.
NFL comparison: Tommie Harris
Aaron Donald (6’1, 285) PIT: On the basis of pure production, Donald would be the draft’s #1 DT. He had a monster senior year (11 sacks, 28.5 tfl, 4 forced fumbles) and was a finalist for every d-line award. Donald is smaller than your standard DT which is the only reason he might be available in the 2nd round, but he uses his hands very well to fight off blocks from bigger o-lineman and his combination of elite quickness and refined pass-rushing moves should allow him to be productive at the NFL level. I have my fingers crossed Donald is available when the Bears pick in round 2.
NFL comparison: Geno Atkins
Will Sutton (6’1, 305) ASU: Sutton was the 2012 version of Aaron Donald. He’s undersized, but put up dominant stats for ASU as a junior in 2012 (13 sacks, 23.5 TFL). His numbers dipped as a senior (2 sacks, 6 TFL) which could be due to gaining around 40 pounds from his 2012 weight in order to improve his play vs the run. The added weight seemed like it cost Sutton some quickness, but it did improve his run defense. If Sutton can find an ideal weight (285?) that allows him to regain his quickness while still holding up against the run, then the Bears would have a steal in the 3rd round.
NFL comparison: Jurell Casey
Kelsey Quarles (6’3, 298) SC: Overshadowed playing next to Jadeveon Clowney, Quarles actually led the Gamecocks in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (13.5) last season. Some of his production was due to opponents focusing on stopping Clowney, but Quarles was still able to take advantage of the 1-1 battles with SEC lineman. He has ideal size, strength, and quickness for a 4-3 DT, while also showing good awareness and play recognition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Quarles moved up to the 2nd round by the time of the draft, but if the Bears can get him in the 3rd or 4th round they will have an excellent DT prospect to build their line around.
NFL comparison: Randy Starks