The Bears’ bold free-agency period this offseason already strongly hinted at it, but GM Phil Emery made it abundantly clear on Thursday that the key to rebuilding the NFL’s worst run defense and 30th-ranked scoring unit starts in the trenches.
The splashes Emery made in free agency, striking fast to land Lamarr Houston and lying in the weeds long enough to snag Jared Allen, won’t exclude him from bolstering the defensive line early in next week’s draft.
“There are positions that have a bigger impact when you look at it overall, Emery told reporters Thursday. “To myself and our staff, the defensive line has more impact than any other defensive position – because that’s where it all starts in terms of stopping the run and rushing the passer.”
The question becomes can the Bears match appropriate value with their seven picks to secure one or more young and dynamic defensive linemen. Emery reiterated getting the best football players regardless of position – quarterback notwithstanding – who can pay immediate dividends and help down the road.
Emery and his staff have whittled down the options at No. 14 to six players. “Yeah, every day we keep narrowing it in terms of defining who that group is,” he said. “I would say for that first pick, we’re right at six. I’d be happy that two out of the six were on the board at our pick and I’d be ecstatic if three out of the six were on the board at our pick.”
It’s a safe bet that, in addition to the top-rated safeties – Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Emery’s half-dozen includes Pitt DT Aaron Donald, projected to the Bears in so many mock drafts that a reporter jokingly asked if Donald has been assigned a uniform number.
But far more valuable to the Bears’ draft preparations than the media’s mock drafts, Emery said, are looking historically at the number of players at each position that come off the board in each round. That’s how Emery typically tries to anticipate what players will be available and off the board when the Bears are on the clock.
Will Donald still be on the board for Chicago at No. 14? He could be the sole lineman Emery has in his six-pack. And Emery sounded more likely to trade down – he admitted he’s received calls from several teams below the Bears – than moving up in the first round, which Emery said is “expensive.”
The only knock on Donald, the Outland Trophy winner and NCAA’s leader in tackles for loss a season ago, is his height. And while Emery subscribes to the theory that “bigger is better,” he referenced Ravens OLB Elvis Dumervil as someone who “can use what they have better than other people would in the skill set they have,” according to Emery.
He obviously plays a different position than Dumervil, but Donald has drawn similar praise from draft analysts. Emery, though, stopped short of joining in the bouquet tossing toward any one prospect specifically.
When asked if the Bears would consider players early who are still rehabbing injuries, Emery said they would have to really love the player. Florida DT Dominique Easley, regarded as a second-round prospect, is coming off a torn ACL but has the athleticism Emery covets.
In addition to athleticism, the Bears are searching for versatile and relentless defensive linemen. Emery praised the positional flexibility of two of his bigger offseason signings, Houston and Jeremiah Ratliff. Emery said Houston is a candidate to play three-technique in the base defense, and the Bears are comfortable with Ratliff playing nose guard or penetrator.
Emery wasn’t shy about emphasizing the need to continue improving up front, but we’ll have to wait one more week to find out if this draft provides the Bears opportunities to accomplish that goal.