Ranking the Positions of Need, Part 2

ConteWelcome to the finale of my Inherently Subjective Positional Group Needs Ranking, or as I’ve started calling it, ISPGNR. Rolls off the tongue. Today is heavy on defense, although one offensive slot does sneak in, as does a specialist position.

7. Defensive End

Finally, we switch sides of the ball. This was the position the Bears targeted heavily in free agency; first with the addition of Lamarr Houston, then Willie Young, and finally the stealth poaching of Jared Allen. That’s a formidable and versatile rotation (2013 undrafted rookie David Bass also showed flashes of competence last season), and although depth across the entire defensive line is always important, I think defensive end is the least concerning spot on defense. (Considering the free agency outlay, I should hope so.)

6. Cornerback 

As I noted in the intro, the Bears are set at both starting corner spots for at least one more season. Tim Jennings signed an extension already, and though Charles Tillman is nearing the end, relative to some other spots on defense, it’s hard to argue that having two former Pro Bowlers as starters isn’t a solid base on which to build. Kelvin Hayden can’t stay healthy, and though Isaiah Frey has shown some flashes of ability in the nickel role, he had no interceptions and just one pass breakup last year. The Bears will have to add a cornerback at some point, and if the right player is available in the first round, I could see them doing it.

5. Offensive Tackle

This depends upon two factors: what you think of Jordan Mills as a long-term fit at right tackle, and whether you think Kyle Long will eventually be moved outside. I’m bearish on Mills, who started strong but faded, and bullish on Long’s prospects as a potential tackle. But as the roster is currently constructed, I think right tackle is the only real weakness among the 11 offensive starters. Mills could certainly take a step forward, of course, and I’d be surprised to see the Bears target an offensive lineman (or any offensive player) with a high pick. But if Mills doesn’t pan out, and the Bears don’t want to try Long outside (which would weaken their guard depth, obviously) then they’ll need to find another tackle, as the rest of the roster looks light on potential future fits. (Jermon Bushrod is good, though. This isn’t a slight to his abilities at all.)

4. Defensive Tackle

The Bears have an interesting group of linemen on the defensive interior. Last season’s addition of Jeremiah Ratliff proved fruitful once he made a healthy return, and he looks likely to start alongside a combination of Nate Collins and Stephen Paea. Israel Idonije also returns to provide a versatile (and massive!) presence; I look forward to at least one ridiculous blocked kick. New defensive end Lamarr Houston might also be able to play inside in certain packages (most likely passing downs; Mel Tucker continued Lovie Smith’s practice of kicking Julius Peppers inside on certain passing downs to maximize the number of pass rushers on the field. I’d expect that to continue this season.) But that’s pretty much it in terms of experienced depth. And when you consider that Collins is coming off of an ACL tear, Paea’s constant battle with injuries, Ratliff’s age and injury history, Idonije’s age, and the ineffectiveness of those players last season, it becomes clear that the Bears are going to have to add some help. (Collins and Ratliff both played well when healthy, in fairness to them; they played just ten games combined, so it’s hard to pin too much blame on them. But of course, that means the Bears are counting on two guys who combined to play just ten games to play major roles.)

3. Punter

While this is an odd one to drop in, the Bears are looking to replace outgoing free agent Adam Podlesh (who is outgoing for a reason.) The Bears have added a few camp legs, including Drew Butler, (son of Bear kicker Kevin Butler.) Butler kicked full-time for the Steelers in 2012 as an undrafted rookie, but was cut prior to 2013. The Bears also brought in Tress Way, who spent training camp with the team last season. I won’t pretend to know whether either of these guys is the best option, or whether there’s a late-round prospect who is clearly a better talent. But as of right now, the Bears don’t have a punter who played in 2013. That’s at least something to consider, and I’d guess that the Bears will look to bring in at least one veteran punter for training camp. I don’t want to overrate the position, but when a team has a championship ceiling (and though I feel a bit Superfan-ish saying that, I really do think that’s the ceiling) every phase is important.

2. Linebacker

I thought about separating interior and exterior linebackers, but as they would have fallen in adjacent spots, it made sense to combine the two. Obviously, Lance Briggs is still on the team, and when he was healthy last season he was still a very good player. (His injury was a freak shoulder fracture; it doesn’t look likely to repeat, although Briggs will apparently wear a protective harness. He’d been incredibly durable until last season, having missed just four games over the first ten years of his career.) He’ll be slotted in at weak-side linebacker. After Briggs, though, things get a lot murkier. Veteran D.J. Williams is back on another one-year deal; he’d started the year slowly after missing most of the preseason due to injury, and just as he seemed to be rounding into form, he was lost for the year with a ruptured pectoral tendon. With Briggs and Williams out, rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene were forced into action prematurely, and it showed.

And here we also find the newly converted Shea McClellin, as the Bears try to salvage some semblance of value from what has so far been Phil Emery’s biggest misstep as GM. McClellin seemed lost as a 4-3 defensive end, and though he played 3-4 outside linebacker at Boise State, that’s a very different position from a 4-3 outside linebacker. He’s certainly athletic enough (although “fast” for a 4-3 end is different than “fast” for a 4-3 linebacker) but his instincts and awareness have always been his biggest issue. Will he be able to acclimate to a new role? Will Mel Tucker be able to find creative uses for his skillset? In any case, it’s hard to view McClellin as an obstacle for a new player to beat out, or as a long-term piece of the puzzle. There are so many question marks at the position other than Briggs, and he turns 34 this fall. It will be interesting to see how Phil Emery and the scouts address the situation, and I’d be very surprised if they don’t take a linebacker in the early-to-middle rounds.

1. Safety

This is likely a surprise to no one. Major Wright and Chris Conte were two of the worst regular players in football last season by both metrics and the eye test. Wright is gone (thanks, Lovie), while Conte remains under contract through this season. Craig Steltz is back, mostly for special teams purposes (fun fact: your longest-tenured Bears defenders? 1. Briggs/Tillman (both drafted in 2003; decent class) 2. Steltz.) And the Bears went bargain-hunting with the  Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings; Mundy signed a two-year deal, Jennings a one-year contract. It’s long been the policy of the Bears to de-emphasize the importance of the safety position; Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith burned through starting combinations for the better part of a decade. And maybe in the old Tampa-2 defensive scheme, that was true. But as other teams begin to realize the importance of a ball hawk like Jairus Byrd (signed by New Orleans for six years and $54 million) or a run stuffer like Ryan Ward (signed by Denver for four years, $22 million), I think it’s time the Bears philosophy evolved as well.

Players like Byrd, Ward, Seattle’s Earl Thomas, and others are showing how important it is to shore up the middle of the field against today’s passing offenses. Mundy and Jennings might very well be an upgrade by the simple virtue of not being Major Wright or Chris Conte, and maybe Conte can find a role in his contract year. But when you consider how poorly the middle of the Bears defense fared against the run last season, when you think of Chris Conte blowing the coverage that allowed Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb to end the Bears season, and when you think about the newly-premium nature of the safety position, I think it’s obvious that the Bears need to improve.

Jay Rigdon is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation Bears, and can also be found @BearsBN on Twitter.