Bears Pre-Camp Report: Defensive Tackles
After a 2013 campaign in which the Chicago Bears defense, particularly its front seven, was shredded on a weekly basis, GM Phil Emery used free agency and the draft to address the problem. To that end, Emery signed re-signed two defensive tackles and drafted two more in an effort to solidify the interior of the defensive line. During rookie minicamp, OTAs and veteran minicamp, we were front and center for nine Bears practices. With training camp less than a month away, here is our full evaluation of Chicago's 2014 defensive tackles. The Rock It took Jeremiah Ratliff a year to recover from a torn hamstring suffered midway through the 2012 campaign. The injury forced the Dallas Cowboys to cut the four-time Pro Bowler. He returned in Week 10 last year for the Bears and provided much-needed toughness to a position that was being rolled over by opposing rushing attacks. The Bears re-signed Ratliff, who turns 33 in late August, to a two-year deal this offseason under the assumption he can serve as the anchor to Chicago's defensive line. Throughout offseason activities, he served as the club's starting 3-technique. Yet Ratliff is far from just a pass-rushing specialist. His strength inside will allow him to play nose tackle if the need arises. He's a versatile, experienced defender who, if he stays healthy, should provide a solid foundation along the interior. Something to Prove Stephen Paea was hampered by turf toe last season and struggled as a result. He's coming off his worst campaign as a professional and is entering the final year of his rookie contract. A lot is on the line for Paea this season. He'll again start at nose tackle, where he'll be asked to fill two gaps at the point of attack. If the toe is healthy and Paea proves he can still stack and shed, aided by his immense power, he'll immediately upgrade the run game and will likely earn a long-term contract. If 2014 is a repeat of last season, the defensive line will again suffer and Paea will be playing elsewhere next season. Wildcard Will Sutton was drafted in the third round to serve as the backup 3-technique. Throughout his collegiate career, he showed the ability to one-gap penetrate, particularly on passing downs. He tallied 37.0 sacks his junior and senior years combined. Sutton stood out during rookie minicamp and quickly demonstrated the same quickness he showed at Arizona State. He dominated off the snap and was entirely disruptive in the backfield. Sutton is working as Ratliff's backup with the second team. He'll likely be rotated in on passing downs, where he'll be asked to be pin his ears back and rush the passer. If he can be effective in that role, the Bears – who had the fewest sacks in the league last season – will be much more effective getting off the field on third down. Prognosis The Bears 2013 defensive tackles were the weak link on the roster but that shouldn't be the case this year. Assuming injuries don't decimate the position, the interior of Chicago's defensive line should be much improved. If Ratliff and Paea can be steady veterans inside, with Sutton and second-round rookie Ego Ferguson providing rotational value, there's no reason the defense should be a revolving door against opposing rushing attacks. A bonus for the Bears would be the return of a healthy Nate Collins, who still isn't 100 percent recovered from his ACL tear last season. If he regains full health and again plays quality 3-technique, Chicago will have plenty of depth at the position. Health will be key with this unit, just like it was last year. Yet the Bears have an ace in the hole with defensive end Lamarr Houston, who has plenty of experience at defensive tackle. He can serve as a quality fill in if injuries take hold. The Bears have talent, experience and depth at the defensive tackle position this season. If all goes according to plan, this unit should go from a team weakness to a team strength. Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.