The Chicago Bears head into the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine with a list of specific needs, although that list may change with the tide of free agency. The position on that list most likely to change is defensive tackle, thought of by some to be an area of strength.
Henry Melton, Amobi Okoye and Israel Idonije are unrestricted free agents. Nate Collins is a restricted free agent, so the Bears will be able to match any offer he receives from another NFL club, which is to the team's benefit. However, if Collins earns a contract worth starter's money, Chicago may not be able to be match. The Bears in turn would not be eligible to receive any compensation for Collins because he was an undrafted free agent.
Melton may get tagged, yet Okoye and Idonije may not be brought back. Idonije is 32 years old, while Okoye's play fell off dramatically last season.
Suddenly defensive tackle is a position of need, even if the Bears franchise Melton, ensuring he returns. With that in mind we take a look at six defensive tackle prospects that received first-round grades from NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
DT Sharrif Floyd
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Florida's Shariff Floyd is a 6-3, 305-pound 3-technique defensive tackle that Mayock lists as a top-10 pick and the best overall DT. There is no real consensus on Floyd, as some analysts have him listed as the top overall DT, while others grad him the third or fourth best tackle.
Either way, Floyd could be there at the 20th overall selection for the Bears. He possesses a quick first step, a powerful lower body and fits the one-gap penetrator mold the Bears like to use on defense. He's strong at the point of attack and can anchor well enough in a one-gap scheme to play either the 1- or 3-technique spots.
Star Lotulelei of Utah seems to be the consensus top overall defensive tackle prospect in the upcoming draft, but Mayock has him ranked as the second best DT. This is a big, powerful lineman who has speed to go with his immense strength. At 6-3, 320, he may project as a true zero-technique nose tackle, typically reserved for 3-4 defenders, but his tremendous athletic ability makes him more than just a one-trick pony.
Lotulelei is the type of prospect Chicago might have avoided in the past. But this is a new defensive scheme and GM Phil Emery has talked about finding players who transcend specific schemes. Lotulelei is that type of player, who can play anywhere on the defensive line. His combination of speed and strength makes him the most well-rounded DT prospect on the board. He won't likely be there at 20th overall but he's still one to keep an eye on.
Another quick and athletic prospect from the SEC is Sheldon Richardson of Missouri. At 6-4, 295, Richardson has a frame that could hold more weight. He's a bit raw but his athleticism and speed cannot be denied. Richardson figures to be one of the top overall performers during the NFL combine. He has a tremendous first step and can play well in pursuit. He could use some polish but Richardson would be a solid fit if the Bears took him in the first round.
Moving down the list, Mayock starts to diverge from some of the consensus opinions of other "drafniks." Johnathan Hankins from Ohio State and Sylvester Williams of North Carolina represent the fourth and fifth best DT prospects respectively in Mayock's opinion. Both weigh more than 310, so they project as nose tackles the Bears might target if they are considering sliding Stephen Paea from nose to 3-technique in Mel Tucker's defense.
The question that needs to be answered under this new regime: Will the Bears try to get bigger up front on defense? They are still going to run a one-gap scheme but will they try to take athletic guys like Stephen Paea and Nate Collins, who project more as nose tackles, and use their athleticism to slide them over to the 3-technique position?
Regardless of the team's intentions, it's apparent there are more needs in Chicago other than the obvious ones (offensive line, linebacker and tight end). Bears fans would be wise to keep an eye on the defensive tackles during this week's NFL combine, as one of those players could be wearing the navy and orange next season.
Brett Solesky has worked in TV, newspapers and, for the last seven years, in radio. He also co-hosts the best Chicago Bears podcast on the Web, Bear Report Radio, which appears on BearReport.com and his blog MidwayIllustrated.com.