Bears have questions to answer at DT

The success of Chicago's defense starts up front. As such they need to resolve a few issues before free agency starts, including whether or not to re-sign Amobi Okoye and where Stephen Paea best fits?

The Chicago Bears held five defensive tackles on the roster all of last season. Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye split reps at 3-technique, with Matt Toeaina and Anthony Adams rotating at nose tackle. Stephen Paea, Chicago's second-round pick last year, was disappointing in training camp and sat out the team's first five contest.

In Week 6 though, Paea was thrust into action due to a knee injury to Toeaina. In his second-ever NFL snap, Paea dropped Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb for a sack. He didn't miss a game after that.

Last week the Bears cut Anthony Adams, whose production dropped off during an injury plagued 2011 season. Toeaina, Paea and Melton are all under contract, yet Okoye is an unrestricted free agent.


DT Amobi Okoye
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

Okoye signed a one-year deal last offseason. He was a solid performer throughout the campaign. His 4.0 sacks were second most amongst defensive tackles, behind only Henery Melton's 7.0. Both players provided very good pass rush last year. Their 11.0 sacks combined were the most of any DT pair in Chicago since 1995, when Jim Flanigan and Chris Zorich combined for 12.0.

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Melton had 23 QB pressures, seventh most in the league at the position, while Okoye had 21 pressures, ninth most. Melton's nine QB hits were third most among DTs, while Okoye's six QB hits were 10th most.

The Bears rely on the 3-technique to get pressure in the quarterback's face without having to bring the blitz. By that criteria, Okoye and Melton made a formidable duo.

So will the Bears make it a priority to re-sign Okoye?

His one-year deal last year earned him $1.38 million. Okoye will likely want a long-term deal, three to four years, with a per-season pay raise. Melton becomes a free agent after the 2012 season, when he'll be finishing up his rookie contract. He'll also be looking to get paid.

If the Bears are satisfied with this duo at the 3-tech, they need to invest in both players long-term. Okoye is a five-year veteran, but he's only 24, and Melton is only 25. This could be a highly effective pass-rush duo for many years to come.

While both were very successful getting after the QB, they struggled at times against the run. PFF actually graded Okoye the better run stopper. Both have the quickness to make plays in the backfield but are just as easily swallowed up by bigger linemen.

When deciding whether or not to-resign Okoye, one has to consider Paea's place in the defensive line rotation. He showed outstanding power last season. His squat frame provides him leverage that, when combined with his upper body strength, makes him extremely difficult to move. Yet he has the quickness to be a good one-gap penetrator. In essence, he's a tweaner: just strong enough to play nose tackle and just quick enough to play 3-tech.

While Paea won't get consistent pressure like Okoye, he'll be stronger against the run. If Okoye chooses to sign elsewhere, the club could slide Paea to the 3-tech and look for a nose tackle in free agency or the draft.

On top of all that, there is Toeaina, whom PFF graded the worst of all five of Chicago's defensive tackles last season. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli loves Toeaina, so he'll again be the starter at nose tackles next year but he'll need to get better against the run. That's a nose tackles job, to eat up linemen and stuff the run. Toeaina did not do that consistently in 2011.

There are a number of options with this group. If Okoye signs elsewhere, the team could be in the market for either a 3-tech or a nose tackle, given Paea's positional flexibility.

Here are a few veteran free agents who should be on Chicago's radar if Okoye goes elsewhere.


DT Brodrick Bunkley
Justin Edmonds/Getty

Brodrick Bunkley, DEN (6-2, 306) Age: 28
According to PFF, no defensive tackle was better at stopping the run than Bunkley last season. He absolutely dominated on the inside in Denver's 4-3 defense. He's not as big as your typical nose tackle but his brute strength and quickness makes him nearly impossible to block. Bunkley is a pure run stuffer, who excels at what he does, but he offers nothing in terms of pass rush. He's only 28, so he should still be able to clog the middle for many years to come.

Sione Pouha, NYJ (6-3, 325) Age: 33
In PFF's rankings, Pouha was just a hair behind Bunkley in DT performances against the run last year. He's a huge human being that eats up two gaps on every play. Running at him is futile. He doesn't offer much pass rush, although he was better in that category than Bunkley last year. He's 33 and his best years are behind him, but he still has enough the tank to be a beast inside for a few more seasons.

Paul Soliai, MIA (6-4, 355) Age: 28
Soliai is absolutely massive and just cannot be pushed around inside. He eats up offensive lineman like no other tackle in the league, yet he has quick enough feet to fit in a 4-3 system. Brain Urlacher and Lance Briggs would have room to run all day with a player like Soliai up front. Yet his performance against the run was far worse that both Bunkley and Pouha last season. When you couple that with the money he'll likely command – Miami tagged him to the tune of $12.3 million last season – you get a highly coveted player that will likely be out of Chicago's price range.

Red Bryant, SEA (6-4, 323) Age: 28
Bryant has experience at both tackle and end. He's a durable, high-effort run stopper who is only 28. He's a smart player who is light on his feet despite his large frame. He is severely lacking in the pass rush department but he could still be plenty valuable as Chicago's NT.

Jason Jones, TEN (6-5, 276) Age: 25
Jones is a very intriguing option. He was miscast as a defensive end last year and is better suited at the 3-technique. He's young, athletic and versatile. Jones is quick off the line and can get after the quarterback. He earned 15.5 sacks in his first four seasons, despite starting just the last two years. If the Bears do not re-sign Okoye, Jones would be a great replacement. His experience at end, similar to that of Melton, would give the team flexibility as well.

Aubrayo Franklin, NO (6-1, 317) Age: 31
Aubrayo is a great run-stuffing nose tackle. Yet he struggled playing in New Orleans' 4-3 and is a better fit in a 3-4 system.

Antonio Garay, SD (6-4, 320) Age: 32
Garay broke out in 2010 at the age of 30, after two very injury filled seasons in Chicago. He has 8.0 sacks the past two years and has shown well against the run. Of all the free agent nose tackles, Garay offers the most as a pass rusher. At the right price, he would fit nicely in a rotation with Toeaina.

Shaun Rogers, NO (6-4, 350) Age: 33
Rogers is a huge body that is still very difficult to move. He only has a good year or two left but could work as a situational run stuffer in Chicago.

Analysis

As you can see, there are few 3-technique defensive tackles available on the open market, outside of Okoye. Which means the Bears should be aggressive in re-signing him. If they don't, Jason Jones would be a great free agent pickup. He's young and versatile, and could thrive in Chicago's 4-3.

If Okoye leaves and Paea shifts to 3-tech, then Bunkley would be a great addition at nose tackle. Because he's a bit smaller than a typical NT, Bunkley fits perfectly in a 4-3 system like the Bears'. He won't give you any pass rush but opposing teams will find it nearly impossible to run against him. He'll disrupt plays while also allowing Urlacher the freedom to roam.

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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.

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