Defensive EndJulius Peppers, Corey Wootton, Shea McClellin, Cornelius Washington, Cheta Ozougwu
Peppers will once again anchor the Chicago Bears' defensive line and there's no reason to expect a drop off in production. Wootton and McClellin will both rotate with the starters. Both players looked good in camp this year and appear poised to take their games to the next level. McClellin is still going to struggle against the run but he's been lightning quick as a pass rusher. He'll be very valuable on third downs. Wootton has shown signs of dominance and, if he plays to his potential and stays healthy, has an outside shot at making the Pro Bowl this year. His ceiling is very, very high.
Sixth-round rookie Washington is strong and explosive, two traits over which defensive coaches salivate. He's still raw though and must make better reads, particularly against the run. Like McClellin, Washington can be effective as a situational pass rusher this year. And the same goes for Ozougwu, who is a pure speed rusher. With this group of five defensive ends, the Bears shouldn't lack for pressure off the edge this season.
Defensive TackleHenry Melton, Stephen Paea, Nate Collins, Zach Minter
Melton, coming off a Pro Bowl campaign, is still recovering from a concussion but is expected to play in the regular season opener. He's as dominant an interior defensive lineman as there is in the NFL and has looked the part this offseason. Playing under the franchise tag, Melton again has a lot of incentive to have a big year in 2013. It would be shocking if he doesn't again earn a trip to Hawaii.
Next to Melton, Paea has been his stout self at nose tackle. Yet it's been Collins who has truly shined so far this year. He has shown great quickness off the ball and has been disruptive in opposing backfields, against the run and as a pass rusher. It would not be surprising at all if he assumes starter duties at some point this season.
Minter was one of the final players to make the team, taking advantage of the opportunity to be the club's fourth DT after Corvey Irvin's ankle injury. He's a powerful undrafted rookie with a lot of upside and the team is very high on him. The Bears will likely rotate Wootton and Peppers at defensive tackle on passing downs, so Minter may not see much playing time but he's definitely a player to keep an eye on in the future.
LinebackerLance Briggs, James Anderson, D.J. Williams, Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene, Blake Costanzo
Briggs is Briggs, a perennial Pro Bowler. Yet Anderson is the player for whom I have the highest hopes. He's been very impressive so far this year and should provide a lot of stability on the strong side. Williams is still recovering from a calf injury that has kept him out for more than a month. He was signed this offseason to replace Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker but so far he's been nothing more than a spectator.
In his place, rookie Jon Bostic has looked decent and has made a number of big plays. Yet he has also made a lot of mistakes, particularly in coverage. If forced to be the starter this year, Bostic is going to go through some rookie growing pains. Long-term, he's the MIKE of the future in Chicago and has the skill set to play at a very high level, just don't expect him to be a Pro Bowler this season.
Costanzo is the club's special teams captain and is very valuable in that role. At linebacker, he's very aggressive and can be fairly effective if called into duty, although that wouldn't be ideal for the team. Greene has also shown well on special teams and will have a substantial role under coordinator Joe DeCamillis, who loves the kid. Greene has been fearless at linebacker but, like Bostic, he makes a lot of bad reads and takes a lot of false steps. He also has long-term potential but Greene is a work in progress at this point.
CornerbackCharles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Isaiah Frey, Zack Bowman, Sherrick McManis, C.J. Wilson
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports
Tillman and Jennings are coming off All-Pro seasons and have been very impressive up to this point. At nickelback, second-year player Isaiah Frey has taken over for Kelvin Hayden, who is lost for the season with a pulled hamstring. Frey was arguably the best corner at training camp and has made substantial strides in his sophomore campaign. Yet his first ever NFL experience will come in seven days in the regular season opener, so it's anyone's guess how he'll perform when the games count. Those worries will subside if he can carry over the playmaking ability he showed in training camp.
Bowman and McManis are quality special teams players. Bowman showed good man skills in camp and should be able to fill in adequately if Tillman or Jennings go down. But you don't want McManis covering anyone, as he's a borderline liability in man sets. In fact, Wilson, who has been solid since rookie minicamp, would be a better option at cornerback if injuries start to hit. The undrafted rookie has very good ball skills and doesn't play like a first-year corner.
SafetyMajor Wright, Chris Conte, Craig Steltz, Anthony Walters
This isn't the strongest area of the defense but Wright and Conte are both good players. Conte does well at keeping plays in front of him and not getting beat deep, while Wright can be a force as an extra man in the box. Steltz is one of the best special teams players on the team and plays the run fearlessly. Just don't ask him to man up on an opposing tight end and you'll be fine.
Walters is an up-and-coming player for whom my fondness grows more and more as the weeks go by. He's very fast and athletic, and he loves to hit. A little more grooming and Walters could eventually develop into a starter.
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.