If you take a portion of the opening line from the 1985 "Super Bowl Shuffle" – "We are the Bears shufflin' crew" – and apply it to the modern-day Bears, it would accurately describe the team's defensive line the past few years.
Save for Julius Peppers and the departed Tommie Harris during his Pro Bowl years, the organization has shuffled linemen in and out of the lineup who can best be described as serviceable – some with flashes of playmaking ability – since around the mid-2000s.
Chicago followers know the names all too well. Draft choices such as Dan Bazuin, YouTube swimming pool broad-jumping star Jarron Gilbert, and the undisputed king of injured reserve, Dusty Dvoracek, were touted as impact players coming out of college. Each eventually turned out to be a bust.
Alex Brown, now with the Saints, was a steady and dependable defensive end for eight seasons. Yet at the end of the day, the team felt he was expendable. In October 2009, Chicago traded a second-round pick for defensive end Gaines Adams, the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft, as a reclamation project. However, Adams tragically died of cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart three months later.
Despite all of the above, at least one area of the line, defensive end, appears set for the first time in a while. The signing of Peppers prior to the 2010 campaign has been money well spent. Peppers was a disruptive force in his debut season, constantly commanding double teams and earning his fifth Pro Bowl appearance. "It would be hard for me to say exactly what type of impact Julius has without going on and on raving about it," coach Lovie Smith told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. "But whether it's playing the run, playing the pass, everything we ask him to do, everything I wanted him to be coming in, he has done. He has been a factor of offenses preparing for him each week."
Meanwhile, Israel Idonije, who has seen action at both defensive end and defensive tackle throughout his seven-year Bears career, looks as if he's found a home at left defensive end. Idonije undoubtedly benefited from all the attention Peppers commanded, registering a career-high eight sacks – as many as Peppers. Whatever the reason, he proved to be an effective and valuable player.
Spelling the two starters will be second-year pro Corey Wootton, a fourth-round 2010 pick best remembered for knocking Brett Favre silly last December and unofficially ending the future Hall of Famer's career. The Northwestern alum is approximately 6-6 and 270 pounds – height and weight numbers nearly identical to Idonije. Wootton could very well challenge Izzy for playing time this fall.
We now turn our attention to tackle, which hasn't been a hallmark of stability at Halas Hall. The oft-injured Harris was on his way out last fall due to his steadily declining performance, but the Bears officially said goodbye to Harris in a late February purge that included veteran linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer.
DT Henry Melton
At this point, the remaining defensive tackles on the Bears' roster won't be joining Peppers and Devin Hester in Honolulu anytime soon. Yet there's reason for optimism.
Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina will get first crack at Harris' vacated three-technique tackle position.
The Bears would like to see the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Melton, a fourth-round pick in 2009, put on a few pounds, but he has upside. Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo, among others, liked what they saw from him last year, Melton's first full pro season – he missed all of his rookie year after suffering an ankle injury during the preseason.
"I think Henry Melton is a talented athlete," Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times at the NFL owners meeting. "We saw some special plays from him in a limited role, and I'm excited about him getting some more reps."
Melton saw action in all 16 games during 2010 and had three sacks.
"He kept getting a little better, a little better, so the arrow is going up," GM Jerry Angelo told the Sun-Times. "Physically speaking, he's got everything you want in terms of size, speed, toughness. That's not in question. Now, it's just a matter of learning the position, and that will come with repetition of more play."
The Bears claimed Toeaina off the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad in 2007. Needless to say, he's come a long way since then. Size-wise, Toeaina (6-2, 308) is almost a clone of Harris, and last year he graded out similar to Harris statistically.
Toeaina, who played his college ball at Oregon, became a key part of the team's rotation at tackle last year. At one point, he replaced Harris as the starter, but Harris regained that job by the end of the season. Still, Toeaina started 10 games and recorded career highs in tackles (17) and sacks (2.0).
As of right now, we'll give Melton the edge in taking over Harris' old post, but Toeaina provides stability and has been consistent against the run. The Bears also have him locked up contractually through 2013.
Toeaina and the Bears' second-round selection in 2011, former Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea, were on opposite ends of the gridiron rivalry between the two universities known as the Civil War.
Now they're teammates and also share the same heritage. Both are of Polynesian descent – Paea is from the Tongan Islands, while Toeaina is from American Samoa. Toeaina welcomed his old rival to the Bears shortly after he was drafted.
"I reached out to him to congratulate him on the accomplishment of getting drafted in the NFL," Toeaina told ESPNChicago.com. "I'm definitely excited to team up with him. In our Polynesian culture, it doesn't take much to get introduced, especially out here in the Midwest because there aren't too many of us. To see another Polynesian is like seeing family. You immediately gravitate to another Polynesian."
The Bears did something uncharacteristic in this year's draft: They traded up to select Paea, who has become the club's second YouTube phenomenon in three years, after bench-pressing 225 pounds 49 times – the second-highest total ever recorded at the NFL Combine.
Take a deep breath, Bears fans. It is highly unlikely Paea will morph into another Jarron Gilbert. In addition to his strength, Paea's got a great motor and can play either under tackle or nose tackle.
"[The Bears] said I'm the right defensive player for them and their scheme," Paea said after the draft. "It only takes one team to love me. The Chicago Bears are playing the same type of defense I love and that's an attacking defense."
Paea's ability to penetrate into the backfield will be a big asset to the team – he piled up a combined 19.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks during his sophomore and junior seasons at OSU.
"Coming in, I know my part. I'm a rookie. I'm going to come in and learn," Paea said. "My learning curve has got to go up and my play ability has got to go up. I just have to face adversity and keep going. But in my mind, strength is my plan B. As far as quickness and stuff, that is what I feel like I can bring to the game."
DT Stephen Paea
Craig Mitchelldyer/US Presswire
Exactly how much Paea will contribute as a rookie remains to be seen. The lockout prevented him from getting his feet wet in Offseason Training Activities, and he will have fallen further behind in learning the Bears' system if the impasse hasn't settled by the start of training camp.
Which leads us to Anthony Adams.
Adams' play since joining the squad in 2007 as a free agent has helped take at least some of the sting out of Harris' drop in production. Last season, Adams started every game and recorded 37 solo tackles – he had 36 solos the year before. He's a big reason why the Bears led the league against runs up the middle, and were second overall in fewest adjusted line yards allowed. Additionally, Adams was last year's 57th-ranked defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 310-pounder became a free agent after last season. He turned down a contract extension during the season, but made it clear that he wants to stay in Chicago. Brian Urlacher, for one, would like to see him back.
"Double A, Anthony Adams, is a great player," Urlacher told Pro Football Talk.com. "He's always in his gap, he's always up the field making plays and he's a great teammate. People don't realize you get these guys who, sometimes they're turds and they're good players and so they're hard to deal with. He's not. He's a fun guy to be around. He's a great player."
NFL teams will have a short period to sign free agents whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Even though they drafted Paea, the Bears have expressed interest in re-signing Adams, and it might behoove the front office do to so since he's already familiar with the team's defensive schemes and has a proven track record. Adams wouldn't need as much time to prepare in the event a last-minute agreement shortens training camp or the regular season.
During the lockout, Adams expressed frustration over the free-agent process.
"I don't like it. I don't like the uncertainty," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's not ideal, but it's a part of the business. You have to embrace it, and you have to be ready.
"It's got nothing to do with your talent and skill level. It's just the nature of the business. People can start drafting all these players and fill their rosters up; then they don't have a spot. That sucks, man."
The Bears' only other D-line question mark is Marcus Harrison. A third-round pick out of Arkansas in 2008, he saw action in 16 games as a rookie and started nine games during 2009. Prior to the '09 season, however, Harrison's stock went down after he reported to training camp overweight.
Harrison appeared in only five games last season, with no starts. He's in the final year of his contract and could be the odd man out.
Mike Sandrolini has contributed to Bear Report since 2004 and received recognition for his work in various newspaper contests throughout Illinois over the years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.