One of the bigger surprises of the 2013 NFL season is the Chicago Bears defense. After so many years of success running the Tampa-2 scheme under Lovie Smith things have begun to deteriorate. The loss of Brian Urlacher and injuries to their front seven continue to hamper their progress under new coordinator Mel Tucker. With loads of changes on the horizon next season, should one of them be a switch to a 3-4 defense? If so, here is how they should go about it.
Cut Julius Peppers
Six current starters on the Bears defense are scheduled to become free agents next March. What few have talked about is whether defensive end Julius Peppers might join them by way of a cut. The All-Pro is in the midst of one of his worst seasons not just in Chicago but ever. He has one sack through six games and has contributed almost nothing else on the stat sheet. To top it off his salary cap number will balloon to over $18 million in 2014. With his production nowhere near that level and him turning 34-years old before next season, the time may be right for the Bears to bid farewell.
Re-sign Corey Wootton and Henry Melton
There is no question Peppers leaving will create a hole in the defensive line. However, the extensive cap space it will unlock could make it so much easier retaining other free agents. Two players Chicago must lock in are defensive end Corey Wootton and defensive tackle Henry Melton. Both should come at reasonable prices since Wootton is not having a very good season more due to not playing his natural position and Melton will be coming off a torn ACL. Their body types and ability to anchor up front will come in handy as 3-4 defensive ends. Melton has played outside before and has the strength to do so, as does Wootton. Their added ability to rush the passer should lend a helping hand as well.
Switch Shea McClellin to outside linebacker
This move will undoubtedly draw the most “I told you so” statements from experts and fans everywhere. Indeed the running belief on Shea McClellin coming out of college was he fit far better in a 3-4 scheme as an outside linebacker. Yet the Bears front office, particularly Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery thought he would fit in fine as a defensive end. That has not proven the case. Despite obvious speed and athleticism, McClellin simply does not have the weight or the strength to anchor against the run, which is a must for an end. That coupled with injuries along the interior of the Bears line is a big reason why he’s struggled in 2013. However, over the past couple games the team has caught glimpses of him excelling during pass rushing situations where he is in a upright position rather than with a hand in the ground. That is the trademark of a 3-4 outside linebacker. Were the team to shift that way, McClellin would no longer hold sole responsibility for stopping the run and instead could focus on rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.
Pursue Brian Orakpo and Sam Shields in free agency
Next season must be about reloading through the NFL draft. However, Emery doesn’t have to completely avoid spending some money in free agency. It will help facilitate the transition, especially if he can find the right players. Among the names that could lend a big assist is outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. He is the best pass rusher the Washington Redskins have and despite suffering a season-ending injury in 2012 has three sacks in five games for them in 2013. He doesn’t turn 28 until next July so he will still be in his prime. If Chicago feels the price and injury risks are acceptable, they can and should attempt to sign him. Besides pass rushers, they will also need corners who can play man coverage. With Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings free agents, finding an able replacement is a must. Sam Shields is expecting a new deal from the rival Green Bay Packers next year. He isn’t an All-Pro but the kid is a proven player who has spent his entire pro career in a 3-4 scheme.
Target Vic Beasley and Khalil Mack in first round of NFL draft
At the end of the day the biggest key to any defensive scheme is the pass rush. A 4-3 is dominant with a pass rush and a 3-4 is dominant with a pass rush. The biggest reason for Chicago to change is based on their personnel. McClellin is their only recent high draft choice on the defensive line under contract next year and he’s an ideal fit in that scheme. However, that isn’t the only reason to change. Much of it comes from the outlook of the 2014 NFL draft. A quick scan of the top 32 prospects does not reveal very many difference-makers for a 4-3 alignment. Jadeveon Clowney is really the only defensive end of note and he’s likely out of reach for Chicago. On the other hand, a number of quality talents have begun to stack up who would fit perfectly in a 3-4. Anthony Barr of UCLA is the flag bearer and easily a top ten pick. Where it gets good for the Bears is the depth. Beyond Barr there are some other quality names rising up the board. Vic Beasley of Clemson has come out of nowhere to lead the nation with nine sacks in just six games. Khalil Mack of Buffalo on the other hand is a dual threat, able to rush the passer, stop the run and drop into coverage with equal effectiveness based on his clear speed and athleticism. Emery likes athletes and both of those options are very good ones who should be in range next May.
Eye Bradley Roby and Darqueze Dennard in second round
As stated above, the second part of building a quality 3-4 is the cornerback position. Looking around the NFL teams who thrive in that scheme have at least one cornerback who can match up man-to-man on any receiver. The Jets have Antonio Cromartie. Cleveland has Joe Haden. Green Bay has Tramon Williams. New England has Aqib Talib. Houston has Jonathan Joseph. The list goes on. Chicago might want to bring back Charles Tillman and/or Tim Jennings but they still need to start stockpiling young corners who can cover. With pass rusher a top priority, a deep corner class should allow them to find one in the second round. A name to watch carefully is Bradley Roby out of Ohio State. Viewed as the best corner in the nation by draft experts early in the season, his stock has taken some serious hits of late due to a suspension and erratic play. Whether it’s enough to knock him into the second round is uncertain, but his speed and sheer talent alone are worth it. A slightly more realistic pick is Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State. Athletically he has all the tools from height to weight, speed and instincts. His big wild card is durability as he’s struggled to stay healthy in college.
Phil Emery must do what is best
Keeping the veterans on defense happy was the main selling point for Phil Emery when he fired Lovie Smith and let Brian Urlacher walk. However with the old core reaching it’s end through age and expiring contracts, he’ll never have a better chance to institute a change is philosophy. Based on the outlook of his roster and the draft class ahead of him, Emery must do what is best to ensure the continued success of the Chicago Bears.