Overview: Season-ending ACL tears to Henry Melton and Nate Collins left the Bears exceedingly thin at defensive tackle last season. Determined to avoid a repeat scenario, the Bears spent two early draft picks to inject some youth and increase depth at the position, LSU’s Ego Ferguson (2nd round) and Arizona State’s Will Sutton (3rd round).
Both rookies, along with re-signed veteran Nate Collins, are expected to fight for spots in the Bears’ defensive tackle rotation behind projected starters Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea, after the club allowed Melton and DT/DE Corey Wootton to depart via free agency.
The Bears were pleased enough with Ratliff, a former Pro Bowl player for the Dallas Cowboys, to offer the tackle a new two-year deal in the offseason. Paea, whom the Bears moved up in the second round of the 2011 draft to grab out of Oregon State, is entering the final year of his original rookie contract. For Paea, it’s now or never. He’s shown promise throughout his four-year NFL career, but has struggled to stay healthy and has never truly dominated over an extended period of time in the regular season.
Battle to watch: Will one of the rookies step up? Ferguson and Sutton are different players. Despite Ferguson’s limited body of work at LSU (12 starts), the Bears believe the 6-foot, 309 pound rookie has the traits to be an effective run-stopper at the NFL level. Sutton was an elite pass-rusher with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles-for-loss in 2012, but his production dropped his senior year with the Sun Devils due to weight gain. Both rookies have upside, but neither is a sure-fire lock to make an impact in 2014.
Dark horse: Many believed Collins was on the verge of a breakout year before the knee injury in Week 5. The affable Collins, who played in nine games for the Bears in 2012, has shown the ability to rush the passer. Collins participated in organized team activities and the veteran minicamp, proving that he is fully recovered from the ACL surgery.
Who makes the cut: It just depends on how many defensive linemen the Bears decide to keep on the 53-man roster. Ratliff and Paea (barring injuries) appear to be locks, along with defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Ferguson and Sutton are likely in good shape because of their draft status, and Collins is an experienced reserve. On paper, the Bears seem equipped to carry five tackles, but preseason injuries at other positions can always change the composition of the roster in August and September.