At every level of football, the quarterback is the most important position on the team. In the NFL, that is proven week in and week out on the field. Yet that can also be seen in the salaries of professional players.
The projected 2013 salary for quarterbacks under the franchise tag – calculated by averaging the top five salaries at the position – is $14.6 million, by far the highest tag number in the league. Quarterbacks tagged will make nearly $4 million more than the second highest tagged position, defensive end, which is projected at $10.9 million.
Quarterbacks put points on the board, which is why, in a league that has seen scoring increase dramatically over the past 10 seasons, they make the big money. On the other side of the ball, the NFL puts the most importance at the defensive end position, the guys who can shut down opposing signal callers by pressuring the pocket.
If a defense can bring pressure off the edges, it can de-rail even the toughest passing attack. Considering the depth and versatility the Chicago Bears have at the defensive end position, the future looks bright for the team's ability to get after the quarterback.
Let's look back the performance of Chicago's defensive ends in 2012 and outline the position going forward.
For the third time in as many years, Julius Peppers led the Bears in sacks (11.5) this season. He has been everything the team expected of him since signing as a free agent before the 2010 campaign. He pressures the quarterback, commands double teams, makes plays against the run and is always around the ball.
DE Julius Peppers
Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports
Peppers finished 2012 with 39 tackles, two passes deflected, one forced fumble and four fumble recoveries. He even threw in a blocked field goal attempt for good measure. And he accomplished all this while dealing with plantar fasciitis in his foot the entire year.
Despite recently turning 33 year old, Peppers has shown no signs of slowing down. He is one of the most consistent defensive linemen in the NFL and has played a crucial role in the success of Chicago's defense the past three seasons.
That said, Peppers' cap hit in 2013 is $12.4 million. In 2014 it jumps to $16.4 million, in 2015 it's $17.4 million, and in 2016 he'll make a whopping $18.6 million. Obviously, Bears brass has some decisions to make regarding the team's aging superstar.
Considering his steady production, the club can likely weather his cap hit in the upcoming season. Beyond 2013 though, it's going to be tough for the Bears to fit Peppers' contract under the salary cap. This will be especially difficult if the team re-signs Jay Cutler to a huge extension, which is very likely.
So while Peppers still performs at a high level, his age and salary could shorten his time in Chicago. Enjoy his time on the field next season, for it could be his last as a member of the Bears.
For three years, Corey Wootton has been slowed by injury. He has flashed potential throughout his career, yet could never stay healthy long enough to demonstrate his natural athletic ability.
That all changed in 2012, a season in which Wootton was healthy from start to finish. Playing at full speed, he was a force off the edge and was named the starter over the incumbent, Israel Idonije, by Week 11.
Wotton finished the year with 27 tackles, 7.0 sacks, one pass deflected and two forced fumbles. It was an outstanding campaign for a player whose future with the team coming into training camp was cloudy at best. Not only did he stay healthy, he dominated.
He'll be just 26 when next season starts, so it appears Wootton is on the verge of peaking. If he continues his dramatic ascent, he'll be a high-impact player, and possible Pro Bowler, for many years to come. His contract is up after this season, so 2013 will be his chance to earn a big payday.
Health is the biggest concern for Wootton. His future is very bright, but only if he stays on the field. If he's able to keep out of the trainer's room, Wootton will be the cornerstone of Chicago's defensive line for the foreseeable future.
Despite losing the starting gig to Wootton in midseason, Israel Idonije was arguably the most valuable defensive lineman on the team in 2012. In fact, Idonije's demotion had less to do with poor play on his part and more to do with Wootton's dominance.
DE Israel Idonije
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports
Idonije was solid on the edge, particularly against the run. His run defense grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF) was nearly triple that of the second highest defensive lineman. Not only that, he also finished with the second most sacks (7.5) on the team and the most tackles (48) of any defensive lineman.
Yet more impressive than his numbers was the versatility he showed last year. After injuries took hold at defensive tackle, Idonije slid inside and assumed a nickel rushing role next to Henry Melton. According to PFF, Izzy was just as effective at tackle as he was at end.
Idonije is 32 years old and is set to become a free agent. Yet he has more than earned a few more years with the tam. His consistency and positional flexibility will be invaluable to a defense transitioning to a new coordinator. GM Phil Emery should make it a priority to keep depth along the defensive line by signing Idonije for at least one more season.
First-round rookie Shea McClellin was touted as a situational speed rusher that could be a force on passing downs. That never materialized.
McClellin is undersized and lacks strength. He's a much better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker and struggled off the edge in Chicago's 4-3. He picked up just 2.5 sacks his rookie year, to go along with 14 tackles. Other than that, he was pretty much nonexistent in 2012.
The Bears tried some creative ways to deploy McClellin, using him as a roving linebacker at times. That out-of-the-box thinking must continue under new coordinator Mel Tucker if the team is ever going to get first-round production out of McClellin. He just doesn't fit the base 4-3 scheme, so Tucker must find ways to use the kid's athleticism to the defense's advantage. Because if they keep lining him up as a down rusher off the edge, he'll continue to disappoint, as he just doesn't belong there.
And against the run, he's a downright liability. According to PFF, his grade against the run was the lowest of every Chicago defensive lineman except for Amobi Okoye. McClellin just doesn't have the power to set the edge and shed blockers.
He has a lot of natural talent but he's been miscast by Emery. The challenge for Tucker will be to build a scheme that can maximize McClellin's abilities on a weekly basis. If Tucker fails, McClellin will go down as a first-round bust.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.