The Bears’ top three defensive tackles in 2013 spent more time in the training room than they did on the field, missing a combined 27 games as Chicago’s run defense plummeted from fifth in the NFL in 2012 to dead last in 2013.
General manager Phil Emery had that in mind when he sent in the Bears second-round card (No. 51 overall) in the NFL draft with the name of a relative unknown, LSU’s Ego Ferguson, the first of two defensive tackles taken by the Bears on Friday.
There’s a reason Ferguson (6-foot-3, 315), an underclassman and one-year starter in the SEC, is somewhat of a mystery. He was suspended for his final college game (coaches’ decision) but decided to enter the draft early, in part because he needed to help his mother, who suffered a back injury at work.
“It was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, I knew my family needed me,” said Ferguson. “…I just want to take care of my mom.”
The raw Ferguson is unlikely to start immediately – Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea are penciled in as the Bears’ starting tackle tandem and free-agent acquisition Lamarr Houston
will spend plenty of time inside – but the athletic space eater’s arrival should help ensure their depth isn’t exposed similarly in 2014.
With Ratliff at age 33, Henry Melton now in Dallas, and Stephen Paea entering a contract year much closer to bust than candidate for a new contract, Emery might have reached for Ferguson, a third-to-fifth round projection by Chicago Football. He also showed good foresight. But like his pick of Kyle Fuller last night, don’t be discouraged by the fact Ferguson doesn’t immediately line up with the No. 1s on the depth chart.
The NFC North is well-balanced and supremely talented on offense. Aaron Rodgers and Calvin Johnson obviously make Green Bay and Detroit pass-first clubs. However, there is a pretty decent back in Minnesota who has given the Bears a few difficulties over the years, and his counterpart in Green Bay might be the league’s second most violent runner behind Adrian Peterson.
The Bears need all the help they can get finding players who can reside in the backfield, both as run stuffers and QB hunters. Never has the need for interior penetrators who can move QBs off their spot been as great as it is in today’s NFL. Ferguson, in theory, can help the Bears on multiple levels.
If Rodgers, Matt Stafford and Matt Cassel – or whomever the Vikings put on the field in Week 1 – can’t freely step up in the pocket, they have to go somewhere when things get hairy. Additionally, Ferguson’s presence on the inside should maximize the productivity of free-agent edge crashers Jared Allen and Willie Young.
Jon Bostic and the rest of the Bears’ green LB corps caught the brunt of the criticism for the sieve-like run defense – and some of the poor run fits and angles truly were inexcusable. But even more so was the holes that opened for backs to cleanly reach the second level. Ferguson can help there, too.
What is the common denominator on the best Bears defenses of the past decade? A premier disruptor in the middle (Melton, Tommie Harris, and Keith Traylor going back a bit further) is your answer. Emery said D-linemen are the most impactful part of a great defense; now he’ll hope Ferguson becomes a long-term fixture, but one who starts impacting games immediately.
Emery doubled down on defensive tackles Friday – and the Bears’ third-round pick, No. 81 overall, is a name that should be more familiar than Ferguson’s. Will Sutton, the former Arizona State tackle, was one of the nation’s most disruptive players as a junior before playing out of shape in his final season in Tempe, limiting his explosiveness.
Sutton’s motor and conditioning raise some questions, but few doubt his athleticism and knack for bringing down quarterbacks. Lost in Chicago’s historically bad run defense a season ago? The Bears also had the fewest sacks in the NFL. Sutton’s a proven pass rusher. If defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni and a veteran defense can help whip Sutton into shape, he could be a mainstay in the middle of the Bears’ defense for a long time.
* Arthur Arkush cover the Bears for ChicagoFootball.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @arthurarkush.