The Chicago Bears placed the franchise tag on Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton this offseason, assuring he'll stay in the Windy City for at least one more year. Beyond that, Melton's future in Chicago is uncertain. He'll be too expensive to franchise again in 2014, so if the Bears are unable to sign him to a long-term contract this year, he'll likely bolt to the highest bidder in free agency next offseason.
The club spent a second-round pick on Stephen Paea in the 2011 draft and he's proven to be a very capable nose tackle. Paea even has the quickness to fill in at 3-technique in a pinch. He's an emerging player who could be the anchor for the defensive line for years to come.
Behind Paea is Nate Collins, who signed a one-year veteran-minimum deal a few weeks ago. Collins is a journeyman defensive lineman who has yet to prove himself at the professional level. He may develop this year into a quality rotational player but at this point, he can't be counted on as a long-term option.
In essence, come next offseason, Paea may be the only DT on the roster. That makes defensive tackle a big priority in the upcoming draft. With the Bears having already filled positions of need through free agency – particularly along the offensive line, and at tight end and linebacker – it's very likely GM Phil Emery is strongly considering taking a defensive tackle early in the draft, possibly in the first round.
With that in mind, we break down the top defensive tackles in this year's class, prospects expected to come off the board in the first three rounds.
Sharrif Floyd, Florida (6-3, 297)
Floyd is the consensus top defensive tackle in this year's class and is projected to be a Top 5 selection. He's a quick, powerful, relentless player who has played every position along the defensive line during his collegiate career. His versatility and elite athleticism makes him attractive to both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. He could be a major factor for the Bears but he'll be long gone by the time Chicago picks at 20th overall.
Projected: Top 5
Star Lotulelei, Utah (6-3, 311)
Lotulelei is a thick, explosive nose tackle. He flies off the ball and is nearly impossible to block in the run game. He's a space eater with the quickness to one-gap penetrate, which will likely make him a Top-10 selection. He missed most of the combine due to an irregular heartbeat, yet doctors do not believe it is a long-term problem. As such, he'll surely be long gone by the time Chicago picks in the first round.
Projected: Top 15
Sheldon Richardson, Missouri (6-3, 294)
Richardson is arguably the quickest defensive tackle in this class. He's in the backfield in a heartbeat and plays with great leverage, which allows him to hold up well against double teams. He finished second on the team in tackles (75) his junior year in 2012, which included 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. His ability to penetrate at the snap should result in countless backfield disruptions at the pro level. Richardson is a high-ceiling 3-technique defensive tackle the Bears would love to have. Most mock drafts have him off the board in the first half of the first round, but if he falls to Chicago at 20, he'll be tough to pass up.
Projected: Round 1
Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State (6-3, 320)
Hankins is a very large player who can eat up space as a nose tackler. Yet he also has surprising quickness for his size. He's very coordinated and plays with an active motor. When he wants to, he can dominate. For that reason, despite his size, he has the potential to be effective as a 3-technique DT. His best fit will likely be nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme but if the Bears want to gamble on one of the toughest defenders to block in this class, Hankins would be that guy.
Projected: Round 1
Kawann Short, Purdue (6-3, 299)
Short was named second-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten his senior season. He's a natural athlete who, despite a less-than-stellar frame, uses his thickness to his advantage. Additionally, he's a fluid athlete with quick feet, long arms and strong hands. He must keep his weight in check and get in better shape to finish games but Short has the potential to be an under tackle in Chicago's system. He's a borderline first-round pick, so if the Bears want him, they'll have to reach for him at 20. Ideally, Emery would trade back a few spots, picking up an extra third or fourth in the process, and select Short in the bottom part of the first round.
Projected: Round 1-2
Jesse Williams, Alabama (6-4, 323)
Williams is one of the bigger defenders in this draft class. His size and non-stop motor makes him a load for opposing blockers to handle. He's not a great athlete but his hustle and strength will make him a quality nose tackle in a 3-4 system. He's not a great fit for the Bears though.
Projected: Round 2
Sylvester Williams, North Carolina (6-3, 313)
Williams is another nose tackle with good quickness. He's very quick off the ball and is often able to penetrate immediately after the snap. Yet he too often fades after that, giving up on the play once a blocker locks on. As such, he'll never be a pass-rushing threat. But against the run, Williams is a stud. He's one of the best interior defenders in this class at fighting off double teams. He has enough burst to play in a 4-3 but also enough strength to two-gap in a 3-4 scheme. His versatility could make him attractive to a number of teams. The Bears did not attend his pro day, which is a sign they may not be interested. But if Emery is looking for a quality nose tackle with quickness to back up Paea, Williams would be a solid option in the second round.
Projected: Round 2
John Jenkins, Georgia (6-4, 346)
There are only a handful of defensive tackles in this year's rookie pool who are bigger than Jenkins. He also has outstanding pure brute strength, which allows him to hold his ground and clog holes with ease. He uses that power with an effective bull rush as well. Jenkins can overwhelm single blocks due to his massive size. His only weakness is a thin lower body, which can cause poor balance and far too much bend at the waist. His best fit will be at nose tackle in a 3-4, which makes it highly unlikely he'll end up in Chicago.
Projected: Round 2-3
Brandon Williams, Missouri Southern (6-1, 335)
Williams may not be as big as Jenkins but he's just as strong. In fact, Williams' 38 bench-press reps at the combine were eight more than Jenkins and tied for the most amongst all players in Indianapolis. He's one of the best small-school athletes in this draft class. A three-year starter, Williams crushed the competition throughout his collegiate career. His size made him a force against the run, yet he was also outstanding as a pass rusher, picking up eight or more sacks in each of the past three seasons – an impressive feat for a player of his girth. Playing in the MIAA, Williams' competition was relatively weak, so it remains to be seen if he can produce at the next level. Considering his physical tools, it's hard to believe he won't. He'll likely come off the board in the third round but if he falls to the Bears in the fourth, he might be worth a flier.
Projected: Round 3
Best Fit: The Bears are in a tough spot at 20th overall if the club is looking to draft a defensive tackle in the first round. The elite players will be off the board by then, leaving only fringe first-rounders and 3-4 nose tackles. With the possibility Melton will be gone post-2013, the priority is likely a pass rushing 3-technique DT over a space-eating nose tackle.
The player who best fits that role is Richardson but most mock drafts don't have him lasting until the 20th pick. If he's there though when it's the Bears' turn to pick in the first round, he'll likely be the most-talented player on the board, which is the criteria Emery has laid out for his first selection this year.
Short can also play 3-technique but he's not necessarily a first rounder and isn't likely to fall to Chicago in the second. Depending on when the players on this list come off the board, there may not be proper value for the Bears in either the first or second round. Due to the Brandon Marshall trade, Chicago is without a third-round selection, which would force the team to look in the fourth, fifth or sixth round for a pass-rushing DT. There are players in those rounds who could develop into starters but they are far from elite.
While defensive tackle is a priority in this draft, the chips may not fall in Chicago's favor in the early rounds. Richardson and Short are options but Emery must be ready to select high-ceiling prospects in the middle rounds in case neither player falls to the Bears.
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.