The Bears' front office let go of three veterans Monday morning: DT Tommie Harris, LB Hunter Hillenmeyer and OT Kevin Shaffer. Hillenmeyer was a solid but unspectacular defender who spent eight years in Chicago. Shaffer was a swing tackle who has played a backup role since being signed as a free agent in 2009. Neither player contributed much at all last season and won't be too difficult to replace.
Harris, on the other hand, is a former first-round draft pick and three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle. His drastic drop dip in production the last two seasons has been a constant talking point for Bears fans, media and coaches. He played so poorly the first half of last season that coach Lovie Smith chose to bench him for a large Monday Night tilt against Green Bay.
The writing was on the wall. It's officially time to find his replacement. In addition, the Bears could lose DT Anthony Adams to free agency this off-season. It's a safe bet at least one of its seven picks in the upcoming draft will be used to find another tackle to slide into the rotation. This is a deep draft for defensive linemen, and with the needs along the offensive line, it's not likely Chicago will draft DT in Round 1. So here are four draft prospects that could fill that need in Round 2 or later.
Marvin Austin, North Carolina, 6-2, 309
Had Austin not been suspended his senior year for NCAA violations, we'd be talking about him as a top-20 pick. As it is, his accepting of improper benefits waved enough red flags that he'll most likely fall to the second round. Yet after hearing him speak at the Scouting Combine, he seems to be a decent kid, very contrite, who while still upset about missing his final year at Chapel Hill, is ready to move on. And as we know, Jerry Angelo isn't afraid to draft players with character concerns.
Austin is a powerful player who explodes off the ball. His athleticism showed at the combine. He has very quick hands and feet, and good balance. If he falls to them in the second round, the Bears would be getting a very good player who is well-suited to play the three-technique.
Kenrick Ellis, Hampton, 6-5, 346
Ellis is a very intriguing option should Adams decide to sign elsewhere. He is a huge human being who would demand double teams, opening up room for Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs behind him. He's a powerful bull rusher who said at the combine he loves stopping the run and referred to himself as "relentless." While he's a little taller than a typical Smith defensive lineman, his sheer size would be hard for the Bears to overlook.
Like Austin though, Ellis has some questions about his character. He was dismissed from South Carolina after the 2008 season for violating team policies and transferred to Hampton. He has also had problems keeping his weight down. These issues, coupled with the fact he played at a small school, could see him fall to third round, which would be a perfect spot for Chicago to grab him.
Jarvis Jenkins, Clemson, 6-4, 310
Jenkins has the body type to play multiple positions along the defensive line. His size could make him a decent nose tackle, but he also has the quickness to play the three-technique. He even has experience at defensive end. He is at his best versus the run, where he can utilize his quick hands and discipline. His pass rush skills definitely need some work, which means he won't be seeing the field on 3rd down for a while.
"If I want to be an elite player in the NFL, I have to improve on my pass rushing because sacks get you paid, sacks get you in the Hall of Fame," he said.
Jenkins has had no off-the-field issues and was very well-spoken. He said he emulates his game after Tommie Harris. If he falls to the Bears in Round 2, fans will want the 2004 version of Harris, not the 2009 version.
Jurrell Casey, USC, 6-1, 300
Casey is a very impressive young man. He played a leadership role for USC the past two seasons. He had no off-the-field or academic issues. He is very quick off the ball, has a thick base and is phenomenal against the run. He felt his only weakness was recognizing the play action on first downs and shifting into the pass rush. He's ideally suited to play the three-technique, and has the prototypical size for a DT in Smith's system.
"My greatest strength is my quickness off the ball and being able to redirect sideline to sideline," Casey said at the combine.
Like most players coming out of Southern California, he is slightly overrated, and could come off the board early in the second round. Yet of all the players at the combine, Casey reminded me the most of Harris in his early career. It's hard to imagine Chicago passing him up if he falls to them in the second round.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.