The Chicago Bears began the 2013 season with a four-deep defensive tackle rotation of Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, Nate Collins and Sedrick Ellis. In an ominous sign of things to come, Ellis retired the day before training camp began, immediately putting the team in a hole at the position. A camp competition ensued, with undrafted rookie Zach Minter emerging the winner at the start of the regular season.
In Week 3, Melton tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve. A few weeks later, Collins tore his ACL and joined Melton on IR. It was around that time Paea suffered a turf toe injury that, while it forced him to miss just three games, hampered him severely the remainder of the campaign. And after being active for just three games the first eight weeks of the season, Minter was waived in Week 9.
Just like that, before half the season had been conducted, the Bears lost all four of their top defensive tackles. As a result, the team began pulling players off the street, signing Landon Cohen in Week 4, Christian Tupou in Week 6 and Jeremiah Ratliff in Week 10.
Not surprisingly, the Bears finished last in the league against the run and tied for last in sacks. In the wake of arguably the worst defensive performance in franchise history, defensive line coach Mike Phair was fired.
Let's break down the play of each individual defensive tackle to determine who should stay, who should go and where improvements must be made.
The Bears franchised Melton last offseason at $8.4 million and he rewarded them with 125 snaps before his season was cut short. He did very little with those snaps, picking up just five tackles and no sacks. He was recently arrested in Texas after a bar fight, which elicited these comments from GM Phil Emery a few weeks ago:
"Henry has got to fully dedicate himself to rehab. He has to fully dedicate his mind and his focus to football, which is extremely important. There was a reason we franchise-tagged him. There was a reason for that investment. The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine that drives the defense. That has been related to him, that we signed you for a reason. Now let's focus in on getting healthy, and obviously he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure that he's focused in on football and having a passion for football."
Melton will soon be a free agent and, being from Texas, is likely to sign with the Dallas Cowboys to play for his former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. If he does return to Chicago, and plays like he did during his Pro Bowl season in 2012, he'll once again be a crucial cog for the defense. But whether he'll return and how effective he'll be coming off a major knee injury is still up for debate.
Paea was playing at a very high level before the toe injury. Even after the injury, he had a handful of really strong games. Yet the toe seemed to get worse as the season progressed, sapping him of his ability to stack and shed at the point of attack. In the past, Paea has been a solid nose tackle with the quickness to be very disruptive in the backfield, but he just didn't have the burst to get it done in 2013. An offseason of rest should allow him to return to form next year.
Before his injury, Collins was the most productive defensive lineman on the team. In 192 snaps, he had 1.0 sack and 14 tackles, as well as five QB hits and two QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. The third-year pro was just starting to coming into his own before the ACL tear. Collins just turned 26 and, assuming he returns to full health, has a bright future ahead of him. He'll soon be a free agent but the Bears should be able to sign him on the cheap, which may give Emery the confidence to let Melton walk.
Wootton started the campaign as the club's starting defensive end but was shifted inside due to the injuries. His 585 snaps at DT were the most of any player on the team. While he didn't light up the stat sheet, Wootton was very disruptive playing the 3-technique position, racking up 19 QB hurries on the year and eight tackles for loss, the most of any D-lineman on the team. His explosion off the snap, even while dealing with a bad hip, was outstanding. Wootton is a versatile, young playmaker whose best years are ahead of him. If the Bears can find a way to bring him back, he'll be the cornerstone of the defense for years to come.
Ratliff was released by the Cowboys before the start of the season due to a lingering hamstring injury. The Bears snatched up the four-time Pro Bowler in Week 10 and let him heal for three weeks before activating him for the final five contests. He finished the year with nine tackles and 1.5 sacks, showing he still has plenty left in the tank. Ratliff can play both nose tackle and 3-technique and could be a bargain if re-signed as the club's fourth DT.
Cohen flashed as a pass rusher, with seven hurries and two QB hits in his 348 snaps, yet he was a turnstile against the run. The career journeyman is a very nice guy but will likely be playing elsewhere next season.
Tupou was pretty decent against the run, showing good stoutness at nose tackle. Yet he lacks quickness and was non-existent as a pass rusher. He was inactive for the final four contests of 2013 and was cut the last week of the season. He's currently on the Indianapolis Colts' playoff roster.
Bears 2013 DT Grade: C
Injuries truly destroyed this unit. When you finish with just one of your top four defensive tackles on the final roster, with that final player a hobbled shell of himself, you know the results are going to be ugly.
Yet there were bright spots in the play of Ratliff and Collins, which gives the team some hope going forward, especially if Paea returns to full health. If Melton signs elsewhere, expect the Bears to target defensive tackles early in the draft.
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.