It's been a long road for Israel Idonije.
After four years at the University of Manitoba – not exactly a hotbed for NFL prospects – Idonije showed up uninvited at the 2002 NFL Scouting Combine to distribute tapes of his playing days to NFL teams. The Cleveland Browns liked what they saw and signed him to the practice squad. They subsequently released him midway through the 2003 season.
The Bears plucked him off the free agent wire and he made the 53-man roster the following year. He has been an outstanding special teams contributor since and has shown versatility in being able to play both defensive tackle and end. Chicago coaches shuffled him between roles, never stabilizing his position until last season.
In 2010, Idonije started all 16 games at defensive end and had a breakout campaign. He recorded career highs in tackles (49) and sacks (8.0). Playing opposite Julius Peppers helped him get more one-on-one matchups and Idonije took full advantage of those opportunities. He mentioned throughout the season, as well, that having a defined position allowed him to focus more and hone his craft.
DE Israel Idonije
With two productive players on either side of the line, defensive end seems like the only position the Bears do not have to address in this year's draft. Yet could the team actually grab a DE in the first round, even though it's not a position of need?
Don't rule it out.
Most experts agree that on the defensive side of the ball, tackle is the top priority for Chicago. Tommie Harris is gone, Anthony Adams is a free agent and Matt Toeaina is best served as a rotational player. While Idonije played well at end, is it not possible he could duplicate that success at tackle?
It seems the eight-year veteran finally figured out how to play at an NFL level last year. He is a physical specimen (6-6, 270-pounds) but he was very raw coming into the league. He needed to be taught how to play the game. All that work has finally paid off.
Yet we should not discredit the effect his playing partner had on his development. Peppers was a consistently disruptive force and drew countless double teams. This opened up the other side of the line, which Idonije exploited. But it didn't stop there. Toeaina, who has been nothing more than a backup his whole career, played very well next to Peppers, as did Adams. While Izzy is better suited to play end, he has shown productivity at the tackle position and he could do so again with Peppers as his line mate.
If the Bears leave this option open heading into the draft, a situation could arise where Chicago picks defensive end in the first round.
The NFL Network's Mike Mayock, one of the premiere NFL analysts, said at the Scouting Combine he gave first-round grades to 14 defensive ends in the upcoming draft. More likely, about 10-11 will be drafted in the first round. Nearly every one of those first rounder's would fit in the Bear's 4-3 scheme. When the 29th pick rolls around, Chicago may feel the 10th-best defensive end is better than any player available at the team's true positions of need.
Consider this scenario: The top five offensive tackles are off the board at 29, as well as defensive tackle Corey Liuget and guard Mike Pouncey. For that reason, the Bears do not feel any of the wide receivers, cornerbacks or any interior lineman on either side of the ball are worthy of a first-round pick. Jerry Angelo then looks at his draft board and sees either Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, Georgia's Justin Houston, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn or Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan still available. Is it too far-fetched to think Angelo, a staunch believer in the best-player-available draft strategy who seems obsessed with defensive linemen, won't pull the trigger on one of these top-flight defensive ends?
Most of those players won't be on the board at 29 but one or two of them could fall through. If one does, and all the other players the Bears covet are gone, Angelo will be in a tough position. His options would then be either to reach for a player who is not a first-round pick, trade down out of the first round or pick the best player on the board, most likely a defensive end.
If Bears brass feels Idonije can make the switch inside, if they have faith in Henry Melton's ability to produce consistently and if they are confident they can resign Adams, Chicago could be forced into choosing a defensive end in the first round. It wouldn't be the most popular pick but don't rule it out.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.