In coach Lovie Smith's system, the defensive line typically utilizes a flowing rotation of players during each game. At defensive end and defensive tackle, the Chicago Bears like to keep fresh players cycling in throughout each and every contest.
Yet last season, the lack of depth at end did not allow Smith or coordinator Rod Marinelli to execute a true rotation. Under normal circumstances, the Bears would have two backups supporting starters Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers, reducing their total number of snaps and thus avoiding fatigue.
Unfortunately, the team could not find consistently productive third and fourth defensive ends last season. As such, Peppers and Idonije were burdened with the vast majority of snaps. Peppers was on the field for 919 snaps, while Idonije played 944 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. No other defensive end on the team had more than 109 total snaps. The result was numerous nagging injuries for Peppers and a fatigued Idonije.
Going forward, if Chicago's defensive front four is going to apply the consistent pressure necessary for the Cover 2 to be successful, it must build depth at defensive end.
We've discussed Idonije's contract situation in detail. The Bears will likely re-sign him but even so, the club must bring in fresh blood to, at the very least, provide needed depth. There are a number of good options in free agency. Yet it's likely new GM Phil Emery will want to build this position from the draft as well. Getting a young, hungry player to complement Peppers, as well as Henry Melton inside, could be just what this defense needs to get back to elite form.
Here then are seven defensive ends the Bears should consider selecting in the early rounds of this year's draft.
Quinton Coples, North Carolina (6-6, 281)
Coples is the consensus top defensive end in the draft and will likely be a Top 10 pick. He's very strong getting pressure off the edge, even in the face of constant double teams, and plays the run well. He can play in a 3-4 or 4-3. The only shot Chicago has at landing him would be to trade up, but that's unlikely to happen.
Whitney Mercilus, Illinois (6-4, 265)
Mercilus was an absolute beast last season, leading the country in sacks (16.0) and forced fumbles (9). He flies off the ball and can easily turn the corner and close on quarterbacks. He's a hustle player with a nonstop motor. He lined up all over the defensive line, adding versatility to his game. Against the run, he struggles at times, but as a pure pass rusher, he's as good as there is in this year's draft. He had just 2.0 career sacks before last season, raising concerns about him being a one-year wonder. That could give teams concern and allow the Bears to draft him at 19 overall. As a third-down player opposite Peppers, he would be extremely valuable.
DE Nick Perry
Jason O. Watson/US Presswire
Nick Perry, USC (6-3, 250)
Perry is explosive off the edge and has strong hands. He is a fluid athlete with outstanding body control and flexibility. Some believe he's best suited as an OLB in a 3-4 scheme but he played from a two-point stance in college and had great success. He's smaller than a typical 4-3 DE, but so are Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, two of the best 4-3 rush ends in the game. He's a borderline first rounder right now. If he falls to Chicago in the second, the Bears should snatch him up.
Andre Branch, Clemson (6-5, 260)
Branch has long arms, big hands and all the physical tools to be a successful 4-3 DE in the pros. Yet he's still raw. He needs to add about 20 pounds to his frame and further develop his pass rush repertoire. He shows inconsistency off the ball but can be absolutely dominant at times. He struggles against the run. He's projected to go in the second round. If the Bears want to take on a project player with a high ceiling, Branch is their guy.
Melvin Ingram, South Carolina (6-2, 276)
Ingram is exceptionally quick considering his wide frame. He's a top-notch athlete with room for improvement. He has enough speed to turn the corner and enough strength to bull rush offensive tackles. He can also slide inside and play defensive tackle. He had 19 total sacks in his final two collegiate seasons, which shows his competency as an edge rusher. He anchors well against the run but needs to work on his tackling. He projected to go in the second round. Given his versatility and potential, Ingram would make a nice fit in the Navy and orange.
Vinny Curry, Marshall (6-3, 265)
Curry is a relentless, high-motor player who earns most of his sacks on second and third efforts. He has violent hands and a fully developed pass rush game off the edge. He's also strong against the run. He's a positive locker room player and was a team leader last season. Late in games, he tends to wear down. He's a second round pick as of now and could climb into the first with a strong showing at the Scouting Combine.
Cam Johnson, Virginia (6-3, 270)
Johnson has very long arms and has the prototypical body for a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. He has tremendous explosion of the ball and knows how to stay low and use leverage. He has good straight-line speed and is a strong tackler. He's a little stiff in the hips and has a history of injuries, including knee and pectoral. He's still a bit raw and could fall to Chicago in the third round.
BEAR REPORT PICK
If the Bears want to use a first-round pick on a defensive end, Mercilus is their guy. He's an NFL-ready player that could come in and contribute right away. If the team chooses to wait on the position, Johnson would make an outstanding grab in the third round. He needs work but could end up being a very productive third-down player.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.