Chicago Bears Position-by-Position Defensive Breakdown and Analysis
In less than three weeks the Chicago Bears will officially begin their 2014 training camp on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.
While general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman have been evaluating their roster since the moment the 2013 season ended, training camp will give them one final opportunity to determine which players will make the team in 2014.
After a disappointing season in 2013, Emery made a point of drastically improving his defense this offseason. He has made additions via free agency and the draft, and there is a strong possibility that the team could see more new starters in 2014 than it has returning starters from last season.
Emery and Trestman will take a look at each position throughout training camp to best determine which players will be able to help their team the best in 2014.
In this installment, we analyze each position and try to determine what the Bears defense is going to look like in 2014.
Here is our defensive position-by-position breakdown and depth-chart analysis for the 2014 Chicago Bears defense.
Left Defensive End
Starter: Lamarr Houston
Backup: Willie Young
General manager Phil Emery knew that the most important part of his 2014 offseason was going to be improving his defense, particularly the defensive line.
He wasted little time on addressing that need on the first day of free agency, signing both Lamarr Houston and Willie Young to five- and three-year deals, respectively.
Neither Houston nor Young had elite-level sack numbers last season, but according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Houston's 41 quarterback hurries and Young's 48 both put them in the top 10 for most quarterback hurries by a 4-3 defensive end.
While not viewed as elite pass-rushers, both Houston and Young will provide the team with above-average run-stoppers on the edge.
Houston finished the 2013 season as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best defensive end against the run with a plus-14.9 grade. In less snaps than Houston, Young graded out as the 21st-best defensive end with a plus-5.1.
It was initially believed that Houston and Young would both be starting in 2014, but Emery changed all of that with the addition of Jared Allen.
Allen will anchor down the right side, allowing both Houston and Young to receive less attention as pass-rushers.
Both Houston and Young have talked about how they can learn from playing alongside Allen.
“They went out and grabbed everybody they needed. It’s a good thing," Houston told Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times about Allen. "It’s even better for me to get to learn from somebody like that.”
Despite becoming the odd-man out as a starter, Young has been appreciative of what he has learned so far from Allen.
“He’s like a coach sometimes because he has so much to offer,” Young said of Allen to Kevin Fishbain of ChicagoFootball.com. “I find myself afterwards writing a lot of it down so I can retain it a little better.”
While being able to learn from Allen on the field and the classroom should help both Houston and Young improve, the biggest thing they will get from Allen is less attention when they are on the field.
Teams will be more likely to shift extra blockers toward Allen, freeing up more space for Houston and Young to get after the quarterback.
As long as both can continue to play solid against the run and apply pressure on the quarterback, both have a chance to put up career numbers in their first season in Chicago.
Starter: Jeremiah Ratliff
Backups: Will Sutton and Nate Collins
After suffering a groin injury six games into the 2012 season with the Dallas Cowboys, Jeremiah Ratliff finished that season on injured reserve. In training camp last season, he was placed on the team's physically unable to perform (PUP) list due to a hamstring injury and was subsequently released on Oct. 16.
The Bears signed the former four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle on Nov. 4 to help shore up their injury-depleted defensive line. He played 23 snaps against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13 in his Bears debut and averaged 42 snaps in his five games.
The team was impressed by what it saw, signing him to a two-year deal this offseason.
Despite making just 10 starts over the past two seasons, Ratliff says he feels great heading into this season, telling Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times:
This is the best that I’ve felt in a long time. My running, moving full speed, my flexibility and everything is good. My strength is definitely on par and returning. I’m just looking for big things for myself and definitely our line and the team, as well.
He has the ability to play both the 3-technique and nose tackle positions, and he hinted to Jahns that he will not be locked into one position, simply saying, "we like the plan" in regard to what the team wants to do up front.
With Ratliff holding down the starting role, veteran Nate Collins and rookie Will Sutton are his expected backups.
After appearing in nine games in 2012, it appeared Nate Collins had a strong shot of pushing Henry Melton for starting time in 2013. Just like Melton did the week before, Collins tore his ACL in Week 4 last season and missed the remainder of the season.
The team did not re-sign Melton but was impressed enough by Collins and brought him back on a one-year deal.
He has returned to action this offseason from the ACL injury and has already seen time with the first-team defense in minicamp.
Nate Collins (ACL) continues to see a workload increase. Saw reps with No. 1 defense today at #Bears minicamp.— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) June 17, 2014
Like Ratliff, Collins has the flexibility to play both the 3-technique and nose tackle and should provide solid depth at both positions this season.
Fighting Collins for playing time behind Ratliff will be rookie Will Sutton.
He is short and stout and uses his size to gain leverage against opposing offensive linemen. His snap anticipation, burst off the line of scrimmage and strength are all reasons why Bears fans should be excited about his potential.
After a year in 2013 in which defensive tackles were dropping like flies, the Bears seemingly have the depth to withstand those type of injuries this season.
Starter: Stephen Paea
Backup: Ego Ferguson
A second-round pick of the Bears in 2011, Stephen Paea was expected to become a dominate presence at the nose tackle position.
He started 14 games for the Bears in 2012, finishing with 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Paea injured his ankle in training camp last offseason and struggled with injuries throughout the 2013 season. He played in 13 games, starting 10, but was overshadowed by the play of veteran Jeremiah Ratliff at the end of the season.
He knows this season, his final under contract with the Bears, is an important one, telling Chris Boden of CSNChicago.com:
I let my teammates down. The best thing about it is I have a second chance to do it. I'm gonna step up there fighting and help my teammates, just put a chip on my shoulder. It's the last year of my contract. It's an `all-in' year for me.
When healthy, Paea has shown in the past that he can anchor down against the run, but he has also shown an ability to put pressure on the quarterback. If he is healthy, he should be able to retain the starting job heading into the season.
The team put plenty of pressure on Paea to perform when it selected LSU's Ego Ferguson in the second round of this past May's draft.
The biggest asset to Ferguson's game is his ability against the run. He is strong and physical at the point of attack and shows good bend at the knees, allowing him to maintain good balance when squaring off against opposing offensive linemen.
According to Ferguson in his teleconference with the media after being drafted, defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni wants him to play the 2-technique defensive tackle position. "I feel like I can get after the quarterback," Ferguson said.
As a 2-technique, Ferguson would be expected to line up directly over the guard and would be expected to be responsible for both the A- and B-gaps, while the nose tackle or 0-technique is expected to play heads up against the center.
Expect Ferguson to play a variation of both the nose and 2-technique depending upon what defensive coordinator Mel Tucker wants out of his defensive line in certain situations.
Right Defensive End
Starter: Jared Allen
Backups: Trevor Scott and David Bass
General manager Phil Emery knew that in order to improve his defense this offseason, he was going to need to find someone who could get after the quarterback.
Enter Jared Allen.
Allen signed a four-year contract this past March with the team and will be the starter at right defensive end in 2014.
He has been one of the league's most consistent pass-rushers for the past decade. Since 2007 he has registered 101 sacks and has not had a season with less than 11 sacks since 2006.
Allen will likely get the majority of snaps at the position this season, and he's no stranger to heavy workloads.
Between 2010 and 2013, Allen, on average, played 92.95 percent of the Minnesota Vikings' snaps on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. In comparison, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers played 81.8 percent of the team's snaps on defense during that time, according to Pro Football Focus.
While snaps may be limited behind him, veteran Trevor Scott and second-year man David Bass should still see some playing time at both the right and left defensive end positions.
A sixth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2008, Scott recorded 12 sacks during his first two seasons playing both linebacker and defensive end before an ACL injury ended his 2010 season.
Scott has the flexibility to play both a 4-3 defensive end and could be utilized as a pass-rushing linebacker in certain situations this season.
Built in a similar mold, Bass was also a draft pick of the Oakland Raiders but was claimed off waivers by the Bears prior to the start of the 2013 season.
He appeared in 12 games last season, including one start, finishing with 23 tackles, one sack and one interception returned for a touchdown.
Just like Scott, Bass has the flexibility to play with his hand in the ground or standing up, giving the team more options along the defensive line in 2014 than it had last season.
Starter: Shea McClellin
Backup: Christian Jones
After struggling as an undersized defensive end during his first two NFL seasons, the Bears opted to move Shea McClellin to linebacker this offseason.
McClellin was at his best as a blitzing stand-up linebacker at Boise State and when he was free to roam sideline to sideline. Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen pointed out how the team can use him as a pass-rushing linebacker from the strong-side linebacker position in this tweet:
McClellin has become leaner this offseason, and that should allow him to utilize the speed and athleticism he was believed to have coming out of college.
The transition to linebacker will not come without its bumps in the road, but linebackers coach Reggie Herring has been impressed so far this offseason.
"Shea McClellin’s process, the transition to ’backer, we played him at ‘Mike’ and we played him at ‘Sam,’” Herring told Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Right now, he’s kind of settling into the ‘Sam’ position because we feel like he’s really natural there. It’s really exciting.”
McClellin is also battling 2013 second-round pick Jon Bostic for the strong-side linebacker spot, but Bostic also finds himself in contention for the middle linebacker job. Even if McClellin does not become the full-time starter, it is likely the team will try to utilize him as a pass-rushing specialist in certain situations.
While a combination of McClellin and Bostic will hold down the starting job, undrafted free agent Christian Jones should be able to claim one of the final linebacker spots.
Jones was utilized in a variety of positions at Florida State and has caught the eye of Herring this offseason.
#Bears LB coach Reggie Herring: Undrafted rookie Christian Jones "is doing an incredible job & flashes & shows he has a chance to be good."— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) June 18, 2014
He will need to carve out a niche as a special teams contributor in 2014 but has all the tools to compete for playing time if McClellin or Bostic should falter.
Starter: D.J. Williams
Backup: Jon Bostic
Despite missing the entire 2013 preseason, veteran D.J. Williams still began last season as the team's starter at middle linebacker.
After shaking off the rust in his first few starts, Williams started to come into his own before a pectoral injury in Week 6 against the New York Giants ended his season.
The Bears opted to bring Williams back this season on a one-year deal this offseason. Despite there being a competition at middle linebacker between Williams and second-year man Jon Bostic, Williams is still the favorite to land the position, according to head coach Marc Trestman who told the media, via Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com:
He’s had an offseason to work. He’s been out there competing hard, and when he’s playing well, it’s visibly noticeable in terms of what we can do with the middle linebacker position. But we have competition there. He’s certainly the lead dog there, but we do have competition.
While Williams may be the lead dog, Bostic could overtake the role with a strong training camp.
Bostic struggled at times when he was on the field last season, but considering how decimated the defensive line became with injures last season, anyone could have struggled to perform well.
He will be competing directly for both the middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker spots, and at worst he will provide the team with solid depth at both positions.
Starter: Lance Briggs
Backups: Khaseem Greene and Jordan Senn
While there has been competition at both the strong-side linebacker and middle linebacker positions to determine the 2014 starters, there is no debate that Briggs will be starting at weak-side linebacker.
Emery on LB position: "Best players win." Lance Briggs is the only one that has a starting job right now.— Zach Zaidman (@ZachZaidman) May 11, 2014
With Briggs a lock to start in 2014, second-year man Khaseem Greene appears to be the favorite to back him up this season.
After being thrust onto the field after Briggs' injury last season, Greene struggled to keep up with the pace of the game, often looking too slow on the field.
In order to be better prepared for the 2014 season, Greene has worked hard this season to get himself into better shape.
“I think the biggest thing for me was just my nutrition, watching what I put into my body and getting to a weight where I really want to be at and feel real comfortable at, which allowed me to fly around and move a little differently than I did last year,” Greene told Kevin Fishbain of ChicagoFootball.com.
The team has taken notice of Greene's effort to get healthier this offseason, particularly new linebackers coach Reggie Herring.
“You’ve got a young Khaseem that is running quicker, faster than he ever has before at practice,” Herring told Fishbain. “He’s lost some weight and he’s starting to look like the guy that they drafted two years ago as far as movement skills. He’s having success.”
Greene is still a raw player and needs to develop, but he may end up being Briggs' replacement whenever he decides to retire.
The final linebacker spot on the roster will likely go to veteran special teams contributor Jordan Senn.
Senn spent the previous five seasons with the Carolina Panthers and had four special teams tackles last year and was the special teams captain in 2012.
He does not have much starting experience, but his ability on special teams should help him keep a spot on the roster in 2014.
Starter: Tim Jennings
Backup: Kyle Fuller
After a mediocre start to his NFL career in Indianapolis and two average seasons in Chicago, Tim Jennings transformed himself into one of the league's best cornerbacks in 2012.
He led the league in interceptions in 2012 with nine and followed that up last season with four interceptions and was named to his second straight Pro Bowl.
The team was happy with his performance and signed him to a four-year deal this offseason.
Jennings will hold down the starting left cornerback job in the team's base defense, but he will be working his way inside to nickelback on passing situations while rookie Kyle Fuller moves to the outside.
Interesting development today was Tim Jennings playing nickel when Kyle Fuller came in. Jennings was still No. 2 CB in base D. #Bears— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) May 27, 2014
Fuller, a first-round selection this past May, should see ample playing time this season with many offenses shifting to three- and four-wide receiver sets.
He will still need to learn and get up to speed in the team's defense, but defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has been happy with what he has seen from him so far this offseason.
Tucker on Kyle Fuller: "He's around the ball quite a bit, and he looks like he belongs out there. I feel good about him out there."— Rich Campbell (@Rich_Campbell) June 18, 2014
While the backup cornerback positions may be wide open, Jennings and Fuller, along with Charles Tillman, are the three locks at the position, and all three should see the majority of playing time this season.
Starter: Ryan Mundy
Backup: Craig Steltz
After struggling for years to find the right combination at safety, the Chicago Bears thought in 2013 that Major Wright and Chris Conte were finally going to take that next step and solidify themselves as the starters in 2013 and beyond.
Both struggled mightily in 2013, and with Wright no longer with the team, the Bears will once again be putting out a new starting-safety duo in 2014.
Instead of going after one of the big-name free agents on the market this offseason, the Bears opted to sign veteran Ryan Mundy to help shore up the strong safety position.
Mundy has the ability to play well in the box against the run but also has the speed and physicality to matchup with bigger receivers and tight ends.
While he wasn't the flashiest of signings this offseason, Mundy should at least help improve the team's terrible run defense from last season.
Initially it looked as though the backup strong safety position was all but assured to veteran Craig Steltz, but the team opted to sign former Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson to a one-year deal in late June.
Wilson was once viewed as one of the league's best safeties, but after a down year in 2012 and missing all of 2013 with an Achilles injury, what he has left in the tank is still an unknown.
The only way Wilson will stand a good shot of making this team is if he can revert back to the type of player he was in 2011 and beats out Mundy for the starting job.
If Wilson ends up looking like an average strong safety in training camp, it is more likely that the team would pick Steltz, a proven special teams contributor, over Wilson.
Starter: Brock Vereen
Backup: Chris Conte
If not for shoulder surgery earlier this offseason, Chris Conte more than likely would be viewed as the favorite to return as the team's starting free safety in 2014.
Despite his struggles last season, Conte is still one of the most athletic defensive backs on the roster and showed flashes in the past that he could be a playmaker in the secondary.
With his injury keeping him sidelined, rookie Brock Vereen appears to be the front-runner to grab the starting spot this season, evident by the fact that he has been taking first-team reps this offseason.
Rookie safety Brock Vereen stuck with #Bears first team defense again today— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) June 17, 2014
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has admitted that nothing has been set in stone regarding Vereen starting this season, but he has been impressed by him so far this offseason, telling Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com:
Brock has done a nice job. He has great attention to detail. He’s very sound from a technique standpoint. He’s smart, he plays fast. He does not make a lot of mistakes. That’s good to see. So I think it’s ‘arrow up’ with him. He’s doing an outstanding job so far. We’ll see how it goes. We have competition there. There’s nothing set in stone. So we’ll just continue to monitor him and the rest of the guys and we’ll end up with a good group.
If Conte can return quickly from his surgery and get some reps in training camp and the preseason, he could reclaim his job next season, but it appears Vereen will be heading into 2014 as the starter at free safety.
Starter: Charles Tillman
Backups: Kelvin Hayden and Isaiah Frey
After missing a good portion of the 2013 season it appeared Charles Tillman's future in Chicago was going to be in question when he became a free agent earlier this offseason.
After spending some time on the market, Tillman decided to return to the Bears and signed a one-year deal in March.
He has become best known for his ability to create turnovers, and in his last 40 games he has nine interceptions, five of which he has returned for touchdowns. Along with his interceptions, he has forced 17 fumbles during that time and forced a league-best 10 fumbles in 2012.
Barring any injuries, Tillman will remain the team's starter at the right cornerback position in 2014.
With Kyle Fuller already penciled in as a backup, Kelvin Hayden and Isaiah Frey stand the best shot of sticking with the team past training camp.
Hayden suffered an injury in training camp last season that forced him to miss all of 2013, but he gives the team a veteran who has the ability to play both inside and outside and has experience on special teams.
Lost in the shuffle of Fuller getting drafted, Frey played all 16 games for the Bears last season at the nickelback position. While not overly impressive, Frey was still a steady contributor and will give the team a reliable backup who can also play special teams.