Overview: Heading into 2013 training camp, the Bears’ defensive tackle situation was in good shape with franchised player Henry Melton, Stephen Paea and up-and-coming backup Nate Collins.
You know the rest. Melton and Collins tore their ACLs, Paea battled a toe injury all year and the middle of the Bears defense was a disaster.
The addition that made the biggest impact, though – Jeremiah Ratliff – enters 2014 as the new leader of the defensive tackle group. Ratliff, who signed a two-year contract in the offseason, should be healthier now. While he is turns 33 in August, he will be the one to anchor the middle.
Paea also expects to be near 100 percent, and it’s easy to forget how well he played the first three weeks of the 2013 season before sustaining the toe injury in Detroit. Collins, who impressed before his knee injury, also returns. But most of the focus in Bourbonnais will be on the two reserves — draft picks Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton.
Ferguson is a raw, run-stuffing two-technique while Sutton showed the pass-rush abilities in college to be a potential productive player in the pros. Both players figure to be part of the rotation, and we’ll get our best looks at them in pads.
Position Battles: Every time we saw the first-team defensive line in OTA’s and minicamp, Ratliff and Paea were at defensive tackle, so there appears to be little question about who will get the starting nod. It will be interesting to see if things change when the Bears are in the nickel based on the rotation at defensive end.
The real battle will be for the No. 3 DT role. Collins has the experience and showed plenty of flashes last season, while Ferguson and Sutton both have plenty of intriguing tools. But are they ready to be immediate contributors? Sutton and Ferguson play different positions, so keep an eye on Collins vs. Sutton. If the rookie keeps his weight at an ideal spot and is quick off the snap, he may be the first DT in the game off the bench.
Tracy Robertson, Brandon Dunn and Lee Pegues are camp bodies that will be fighting for a practice squad spot, where Robertson was last season.
Contract Situations: The focus here is Paea, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. If he stays healthy and plays like the player we saw in September 2013, he should be in good position for a long-term deal, but would that be with the Bears? Would general manager Phil Emery dole out a lot of cash for Paea with two draft picks there as well for the future? If we learned anything last season, it’s the importance of depth at defensive tackle. It’s not only Paea’s play that will dictate what he can get in the offseason, but the play of Ferguson and Sutton, as well as Collins, who will also try to cash in on his one-year contract, which is for $730,001 — that one extra dollar allows the Bears to negotiate a new contract before free agency.
Keep an eye on: Collins. We know that Ratliff and Paea will start, and that Ferguson and Sutton are long-term options who could see some time this season, but Collins is the player to watch in camp because he may be on the roster bubble, especially if Ferguson and Sutton develop quickly. Collins had two sacks last preseason and another one in the regular season before he tore his ACL. That $730,001 contract shows the Bears have hope he can show that form again worthy of a new deal in-season, but that’s a long way away, and that contract was inked before the draft. Collins’ goal of making the Bears look smart for that deal starts in Bourbonnais, where he first has to solidify his roster spot.