Last season, the Chicago Bears signed former first-round defensive tackle Amobi Okoye just weeks before the start of the regular season. The club was hoping Okoye, who picked up 4.0 sacks for the Bears in 2011, could again serve as a quality backup to Henry Melton. Yet Okoye failed to recapture the magic and was cut in Week 13.
This offseason, the Bears followed a similar path by signing Sedrick Ellis, the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, a few days before the start of minicamp. The difference this time around is that Ellis will have a full training camp to show whether he belongs on the final 53-man roster.
It will be one of the most important performances to watch in Bourbonnais, as the Bears are perilously thin at the defensive tackle position. If Ellis, who struggled the last two seasons in New Orleans, can regain the form that once made him one of the most coveted interior defensive linemen in the nation, then Chicago's defense can rest easy on a number of fronts.
First, the team won't be forced to rely on the handful of no-name defensive tackles they'll be bringing to camp. Beyond Melton and Stephen Paea, the club doesn't have a single player with more than a few games of experience in the NFL. Nate Collins served as a backup for nine games last year and showed potential but he is still unproven. On top of that, Collins is more of a nose tackle and the Bears are in need of a 3-technique pass rusher to work alongside Melton in nickel sets.
Second, if Ellis can fill that role, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker won't have to move his defensive ends inside on passing downs.
"Scheme-wise I see myself more as a three [technique]; I think [the coaches] do also," Ellis said during minicamp. "But I can do both. I've played both in the past, so wherever they need me to play, that's where I'll play."
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The Saints drafted Ellis after an All-American senior year at USC in which he racked up 8.5 sacks. His quickness off the ball and ability to penetrate single gaps was his biggest strength in college. He served in that same role his first three years in New Orleans, picking up 12.0 sacks in 39 starts. Yet in 31 starts the past two years, he had just 0.5 sacks.
Ellis said his lack of production was due to a scheme change that asked him to be a space eater instead of a pass rusher.
"That was part of the reason I picked Chicago; mainly it was because of the way I know their defensive line plays," he said. "They allow their guys to do what defensive linemen are supposed to do, and that's rush the passer, gets sacks and put pressure on the quarterback while playing the run on the way. I haven't had the chance to do that the last couple of years.
"I believe the first three years [in New Orleans] went pretty well. We had some coaching changes and scheme changes and there was a little bit of a rotation as far as defensive coordinators. I think that the schemes did not quite suit my talents and that showed in production. I'm glad to be back on a team that I know runs a solid [4-3] the way they used to run the [4-3]."
In a familiar role with the Bears, working as a one-gap penetrator whose main role is to get after the quarterback, the team is banking on Ellis returning to form.
"I'm almost guaranteeing that [my production] will [increase] because this is the style of defense that caters to defensive linemen getting up the field and playing fast, which is what I got drafted for in '08 and the last couple years I haven't been able to do that as much. Now I'll have my chance."
Yet with Okoye so fresh in the collective memory of Bears fans, trepidation with the Ellis should be expected. Relying on a player with just 0.5 sacks the past two years combined to be your nickel pass rusher is a big risk to take. Yet there are reasons for optimism.
Despite not picking up a sack last year, Ellis finished the season with 20 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. That would have been second most amongst defensive tackles on Chicago's roster last year, just four behind Melton. Ellis also had 15 run stops, which again would have been second only to Melton.
"He's veteran player; he's got versatility," Tucker said. "We feel like he can give us some stoutness inside and also give us some rush inside."
As a pass rusher, the key for Ellis during the preseason will be to finish. Despite 20 hurries in 2012, he had just four quarterback hits in 719 snaps. That won't cut it. He's getting in the backfield but he's not getting to the passer. If he can close out a few rushes the way he did earlier in his career, the Bears won't be forced to wear out Corey Wootton, Shea McClellin and Julius Peppers by inserting them heavily into the defensive tackle rotation.
"Just talking to [GM] Phil [Emery] and talking to the scouts, he gives us some more-than-needed depth inside playing the 3-technique," Marc Trestman said. "It will allow for us to grow and have more competition. We've created an even more competitive environment on our football team with his addition. Just talking to him, he's ready to go to improve on his career."
Ellis' competition in camp consists of Zack Minter, Corvey Irvin, Christian Tupou, Aston Whiteside and Brent Russell, five players without a single game of experience in the NFL. So right from the get go, Ellis is the frontrunner. He will likely be inserted immediately with the second team and will have every opportunity to earn a roster spot. If defensive line coach Mike Phair can get the most out of his new pass rusher, Ellis could end up being a crucial piece in Chicago's defense this year.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.