With Ratliff, reward outweighs risk

The acquisition of four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jay Ratliff could eventually make Chicago’s defensive line whole again. Just not right now, given the veteran’s injury situation and uncertainty concerning the timetable for recovery.

It’s been nearly a year since Ratliff, 32, last played in a game, and while it’s projected he could play for Chicago in anywhere between two and four weeks, it’s unknown how effective he’ll be once the Bears plug him into the lineup.

But the Bears view Ratliff as a low-risk move that will require some patience. The move to sign him clearly displays the organization’s unwavering commitment to win now despite the circumstances endured recently on the injury front.

From the team’s standpoint, even if Ratliff isn’t ready in the two-to-four week timeframe, it didn’t give up anything to get him, and signed him to a one-year deal, which means there’s no downside for the Bears over the long term. So in weighing the risk versus reward, the team saw the potential positive outcome in signing Ratliff as much more significant than the negative.

Given that Ratliff had plenty of suitors, other teams obviously saw it the same way.

If Ratliff returns as a mediocre player, that’s probably sufficient enough to give the Bears enough confidence to move Corey Wootton back to defensive end from the three-technique defensive tackle position. Normally the starting defensive end opposite Julius Peppers, Wootton was kicked inside to tackle on Oct. 6 in place of Stephen Paea, and ended up having to stay there when the team lost Nate Collins -- who was filling in for franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton -- to a season-ending knee injury. With Wootton forced to play inside, the Bears have started Shea McClellin at defensive end, and the former first-round pick has been ineffective.

So if the Bears can get Ratliff into the lineup over the next few weeks, it should cause a chain reaction along the defensive line that could result in more consistent play against the run, and more push with the pass rush. But the questions for now are when will Chicago be able to make that happen, and whether the team can hold up well enough over the next few weeks for Ratliff’s eventual Bears debut to even matter?

If Chicago buries itself in the NFC North race by losing two of its next three games against the Packers, Lions and Ravens before plugging in Ratliff on Nov. 24 at St. Louis, his debut won’t be as significant as it would be if the Bears were still in the thick of the playoff race.

Also, observers shouldn’t get caught up in the fact Ratliff has spent most of his career playing in a 3-4 defense. When the Cowboys hired former Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, there was plenty of optimism inside that organization about the type of production the club could get from Ratliff playing in a penetrating one-gap scheme. In eight seasons with the Cowboys, Ratliff racked up 27 sacks, 13 fumble recoveries, and 15 pass breakups, in addition to forcing four fumbles.

In a more aggressive scheme that allows Ratliff to penetrate immediately (as opposed to holding up blockers, reading, and reacting like in a 3-4) the veteran, even at age 32, could still ring up similar numbers as a Bear, provided he’s healthy.

Ratliff will certainly be motivated since he’s playing on a one-year deal, and is set to become an unrestricted free agent. If Ratliff plays well enough, the Bears might even gain some leverage in negotiations with Melton, and could even decide to go with the former moving forward over the latter.