Decimated by injuries, the Chicago Bears' defensive line turned in a nightmarish 2013 season. The Bears allowed 2,583 yards rushing, more than 400 worse than the 31st-ranked Atlanta Falcons, and their 30 sacks were good for 30th in the NFL.
Will the Bears address their glaring need for help up front with the 14th pick in the May NFL draft? Our panel weighs in on that and more in an offseason edition of Four Downs:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears' first pick of the draft will be on the defensive line.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Teams need to be flexible in the draft, but the Bears' most glaring need is on the defensive line. Two years ago, the Bears' No. 1 need was to find a pass-rushing defensive end, and the club selected Shea McClellin at No. 19 overall. Last year, the Bears badly needed to upgrade the offensive line and took guard Kyle Long at No. 20. While the actual picks themselves (McClellin and Long) came as a surprise to many, the Bears did target the position groups most believed they would. We are weeks away from free agency, and three months from May's draft, but there seems to be a surplus of talented defensive linemen who could be available when the Bears go on the clock at No. 14. I never rule anything out. Maybe a top-notch cornerback is still on the board at No. 14. Or a safety. We should have a better idea the direction the Bears are leaning after the club makes some moves in free agency. But this far out, it seems like a safe bet that a young defensive lineman is fairly high on the team's wish-list.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. And they better get it right this time. Premier defensive line help is expensive on the free agent market, so it makes sense to get some help on a rookie deal. Phil Emery whiffed two years ago when he selected McClellin out of Boise State to play defensive end. He should look for inside help, given the Bears' lack of depth at tackle, unless there is a can't-miss defensive end waiting for them. Every defense starts up front, and the Bears' injury problems at defensive line led to the defense's demise last season. Go big or go home, Phil.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will consider Missouri DE Michael Sam in the third round.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Sam was a 6-foot-1, 260-pound 4-3 defensive end in college. Despite all his impressive accomplishments at Missouri, Sam fits the description of a tweener in the NFL. Does he have a position at the next level? McClellin is 6-3. Most would argue he is between positions in the NFL. Do the Bears really want to go down that road again? If Sam falls to the late rounds and the Bears view him as the best player available, then perhaps the team considers drafting him. That's not a knock on Sam. He is the SEC's reigning Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and the Bears, like the rest of the NFL, covet players out of that conference. But the third round sounds kind of high for a player with Sam's modest measurables.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I would love for the Bears to draft Sam. His story is inspiring, and given that Chicago has a thriving gay community, he could have a seamless transition to living as an adult in an NFL city. I also think the Bears' locker room would welcome him, and all the fears about "the NFL not being ready" would be proven garbage prognostication. But here's the thing. They already have an undersized defensive end in McClellin. The signs are pointing to the Bears moving him to outside linebacker. That's a move that a lot of NFL scouts and draftniks believe is in Sam's future. I hope he ends up here, but I don't think it happens with the Bears' other defensive needs.
Fact or Fiction: Roberto Garza's career in Chicago is over.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. But if you read between the lines at the Bears' end-of-the-year news conference, there is a strong likelihood the team will only offer Garza a one-year veteran minimum contract. Garza has been a great player for the Bears, but the NFL doesn't usually pay players for their past performances. You get paid in the NFL based on what the team projects your contributions will be in the future. Garza is nearing the end of an outstanding career, but if 2013 is any indication, he has more left in the tank. Personally, the way Garza keeps himself in top physical condition, I can envision him playing at least two more seasons. But just because I feel that way doesn't mean the Bears will offer Garza a multi-year deal. He'll probably have to test the market. But at the end of the day, I predict Garza returns to Chicago for a 10th season. He's built up so much good equity in the organization, I'd hate to see the sides part on less than amicable terms. But in this business, who knows?
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think the Bears get another season out of Garza. Their offensive line thrived last season, and Garza was integral to the group's development. I think the Bears need to draft a young center, but Garza should be able to get another year out of his body. He takes good care of himself and has a fantastic attitude. Of course, Emery has shown little nostalgia in his short tenure, with good reason. So maybe they just move on and grab a veteran center in free agency. But I'm leaning toward a one-year return.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will have a new No. 2 running back next season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Michael Bush carried the ball 63 times for 197 yards (3.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns in 2013. He is to count $3.85 million against the Bears' salary cap next season. That doesn't add up. Either Bush takes a pay cut or the Bears need to go in a different direction, even though cutting Bush would force the Bears to carry $2 million worth of dead salary-cap space. Having a dependable No. 2 tailback behind Pro Bowler Matt Forte is important, but Bush's current contract just doesn't make much sense given his minor role in the offense. If the Bears are going to pay decent money to another skill position player, give it to another pass-catching tight end to complement Martellus Bennett. Forte stays on the field too much for Bush's deal to be considered cost-effective for the Bears.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Bush has a $3.85 million cap hit next year. He's been a decent backup, but not for that price. The now cost-conscious Bears will likely save money by getting rid of him and finding a replacement on the free agent market or through young Michael Ford. Maybe that's the offensive position they draft. Don't rule it out. Regardless, Forte will continue to be the man in 2014. Given his dual roles as running back and pass-catcher, he looks like a bargain with a $7.5 million cap hit.