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Biggest defensive need isn’t on line

Published: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 11:22 p.m. CDT
Caption
(H. Rick Bamman)
H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com Chicago defensive tackel Jeremiah Ratliff against the Dallas Cowboys Monday, December 9, 2013 at Soldier Field.

As we approach the NFL draft, the Bears need everything on the defensive side of the ball. We all know that.

But what do they need the most?

Contrary to what we keep hearing and reading over and over again, it is not defensive linemen. In fact, that is what they need the least.

Let me try to walk us through this one more time. Since the 2013 apocalypse for the Bears’ defense, they have re-signed Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins to compete with Stephen Paea and Tracy Robertson at tackle. Collins is a three-technique, Paea and Robertson are nose/anchor tackles and Ratliff is either or.

At defensive end, they signed Jared Allen, Willie Young and Israel Indonije to compete with David Bass, Trevor Scott, Austen Lane and Cornelius Washington.

Then there is Lamarr Houston, billed as the biggest free-agent signing of the offseason. He played defensive end for the Raiders but spent a huge chunk of time inside at tackle where he was most effective. Overall, Houston has been much more effective against the run than rushing the passer.

Asked at the news conference for the signing of Allen how he expected to use Allen along with Houston and Young, without hesitation general manager Phil Emery said he hoped to have all three on the field at the same time.

Neither Allen nor Young is sliding inside to play tackle.

I suppose the Bears could line up Young and Allen at end and move Houston around in a two-point stance, but that would be begging teams to run the ball down their throats, and that’s the horror show from last year that everyone is trying to forget.

Perhaps he could become a quality defensive end and learn to be a factor rushing the passer, putting either Allen or Young on the bench, but at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, Houston is a classic 3 technique and a perfect fit for what the Bears need to do.

Between 2008 and 2011, Ratliff, in spite of being significantly undersized for the position, became the best 3-4 nose tackle in the NFC, going to four straight Pro Bowls. That guy definitely can play the nose/anchor in the Bears’ 40 front if he can recapture the magic.

Allen has five Pro Bowl appearances and has more sacks (128½) than any other player in the NFL since his rookie year.

Houston is a potential Pro Bowler at the 3 technique and a project at defensive end. Line the three of them up together and then play Young or almost any of your other five defensive end candidates and you’ve got the absolute strength of this defense. If everybody’s healthy and able (Allen is 32 and Ratliff will turn 33 in August), it could be one of the best defensive lines in the league.

The Bears have only two starters in Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams to fill three linebacker spots. The hope is either Shea McClellin or Jonathan Bostic will claim and be a factor at the SAM spot. That’s what it is, a hope, and there is no quality depth behind them.

Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman and Kelvin Hayden (nickel) are three quality backs to fill five starting secondary spots. Although the Bears have added Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray to compete at safety, all three are career backups who’ve failed when given the chance to start.

The Bears have no starters at safety, and no depth behind their top three corners.

So badly in need of starters and backups at linebacker and in the secondary, and now loaded with talent and depth on the defensive line, where should the Bears use the 14th pick in the draft?

Sure, if you identify a future Pro Bowler at the three-technique, you can take him at 14 and feel good about the future. But how does another one make this defense better now?

• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and ChicagoFootball.com. Write to him at harkush@chicagofootball.com.

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