Last year, the Chicago Bears initiated a training camp competition between five players for the club's fourth and final defensive tackle position. Henry Melton, Stephen Paea and Matt Toeaina were guaranteed roster spots but behind those three there was little more than rookies and journeymen.
The Bears are currently in a similar spot at defensive tackle, only there is even less depth this time around. GM Phil Emery understands the team's problems at DT, which is why he began this offseason by franchising Melton at more than $8 million for 2013. Paea appears to be the long-term nose tackle but Toeaina is gone and there are few other standout options on the roster.
Let's break down the players in this competition.
Nate Collins (6-2, 296) 4th year
Collins spent two years with the Jaguars before winning the camp competition in Bourbonnais last year. He appeared in 11 games for the Bears in 2012, picking up six tackles and no sacks, which was good enough to earn him a one-year deal with the Bears this season. He has a nice blend of size and quickness and has shown the ability to apply pressure on passing downs. He has the flexibility to play 3-technique behind Melton but Collins' skill set is best suited for nose tackle. He's currently the No. 3 defensive tackle on the roster and is in a good spot to make the final 53-man roster. That said, he hasn't earned anything at this point.
On the Bubble
Aston Whiteside (6-2, 255) 2nd year
Whiteside was signed by the Bears in training camp last year and spent most of 2012 on the club's practice squad. A natural defensive end, Whiteside has been working next to Collins at DT with the second team this offseason. At 255 pounds, he's about 30 pounds too light to play full time on the inside but his experience at both DT and DE makes him an intriguing option as a versatile situational pass rusher.
Corvey Irvin (6-2, 295) 3rd year
Irvin is with his fifth team in the past four years. He tried out with the Bears during minicamps last month and was invited back to OTAs. He's been working mainly with the third team but last week, he saw a number of reps with the second team in place of Whiteside. Irvin doesn't have Whiteside's quickness but he's much bigger and can hold up far better against the run. The fact he is already working his way up the depth chart means Chicago's coaching staff has taken notice, which will bode well for Irvin heading into training camp.
Minter and Russell were both dominant small-school defenders in college and were signed by the Bears as undrafted free agents following this year's draft. On film, both players are highly impressive. They each showed the ability to penetrate gaps and be extremely disruptive in the backfield. Unfortunately, that hasn't yet translated to the practice fields at Halas Hall. They haven't shown much during minicamps or OTAs, and neither has earned any reps other than with the third team.
Christian Tupou (6-2, 290) Rookie
Tupou is somewhat of a wildcard in this group. Like Irvin, Tupou earned an invite to OTAs after strong outings during minicamps. Tupou shows very good quickness, enough where he might be able to back up Melton at 3-technique. He's buried on the depth chart with the third team, rotating with Minter and Russell, but out of those three long shots, Tupou shows the most potential. If he doesn't make the 53-man roster, he'll be a great candidate for the practice squad.
The Bears realize how dire the situation is at defensive tackle, particularly on passing downs. The club likes to use a four-man rotation at DT to keep players fresh during games but right now, there is no reliable interior pass rusher other than Melton.
For this reason, the coaching staff has been rotating defensive ends Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin inside at DT on passing downs with the first team. The group behind Melton and Paea is untested and unreliable, which is why the Bears are searching for alternative options.
This doesn't bode well for the group of six players we covered in this article. Two of them will make the final 53 but they may not see much of the field. That is unless someone decides to step up his game and stand out during training camp. There is plenty of time to make that happen but as it looks right now, the lack of depth along the interior of the defensive line is going to be a problem for the foreseeable future.
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.