In 2013, no position on the Chicago Bears defense had more misfortune than defensive tackle. The team lost Sedrick Ellis the day before training camp began, followed by back-to-back ACL injuries to Henry Melton in Week 3 and Nate Collins in Week 5. Shortly after, Stephen Paea developed turf toe, which severely limited him the remainder of the campaign.
It's likely the Bears will address defensive tackle early in this year's draft but with Melton, Collins and Ratliff set to hit free agency, Emery is going to have to invest in at least one veteran. Value will be key in that search, as the Bears don't have a lot of money to spend in free agency.
Let's break down the top defensive tackles in this year's free-agent class in search of players who can help the Bears this season and beyond. Both Emery and coach Marc Trestman have left open the possibility of the team switching to a 3-4 defense, or at least a hybrid 3-4/4-3, so we won't rule out anyone based on scheme. Only unrestricted free agents will be considered.
Randy Starks (6-3, 305) Age: 30
Starks is a two-time Pro Bowler who has excelled in both 3-4 and 4-3 systems. He's a three-down player who can pressure the quarterback and stuff the run. His scheme versatility, consistent production and veteran leadership will make him a big free-agent prize, so it's unlikely the Bears will be able to afford him.
Linval Joseph (6-4, 323) Age: 25
Joseph is a hulking space eater who is very quick for his size. He's very strong against the run and would be a big boost for Chicago's 32nd-ranked run defense. He turns just 26 in October, so he'll be in high demand, which could price him out of the Bears' range.
Paul Soliai (6-4, 340) Age: 30
Soliai is a beast against the run and commands a double team on nearly every play. He's mammoth but still quick enough to play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3. He could immediately anchor the Bears' defense.
B.J. Raji (6-2, 334) Age: 28
Raji is still big but he has played very poorly the past two years. He hasn't had a sack since 2011 and many have questioned his desire to play the game. Next.
Cedric Thornton (6-4, 309) Age: 25
Thornton offers little as a pass rusher but he is absolutely dominant against the run. He would provide a huge boost to Chicago's run D and he's only 25. The fact he's one-dimensional could lower his price tag into the Bears' range.
Tony McDaniel (6-7, 305) Age: 29
McDaniel has just 10.5 sacks in eight NFL seasons, so he won't provide much in the pass-rush department. Against the run though, he's outstanding and would provide the Bears steadiness inside.
Ropati Pitoitua (6-8, 298) Age: 28
Pitoitua is a solid run stuffer with experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 systems. He's not a consistent pass rusher but he did log 4.0 sacks last season, a career single-season high. He's young and can upgrade the Bears' run D.
Jason Hatcher (6-6, 299) Age: 32
Hatcher was an average player for seven seasons in the Cowboys' 3-4 but exploded last year as a 4-3 DT. He picked up 11.0 sacks and two forced fumbles, both career highs. Hatcher is 32, so he's not a long-term option, but as a one- or two-year rental, he could be an effective 3-technique in Chicago.
Kevin Williams (6-5, 311) Age: 34
Williams' best days are behind him, particularly as a pass rusher, but he can still eat up space inside. At 34, he's on his last leg but he can be a quality run stopper for one more year.
Jonathan Babineaux (6-2, 300) Age: 32
Babineux is still solid against the run and, despite picking up just 1.0 sack in 2013, he applied 28 QB pressures, which was more than any Bears defender last year. He's an all-around solid player who still has a good year or two left in him. At the right price, Babineux would make a great short-term DT in Chicago.
Terrence Cody (6-4, 340) Age: 26
Cody has been a big disappointment for the Ravens since being selected in the 2nd round in 2010, due mainly to numerous injuries. If he can stay healthy, there's a chance Cody can still produce at a high level. If the Bears want a big-bodied, two-gap player with upside, they could entice Cody with an incentive-laden one-year prove-it contract.
Long-Term: Cedric Thornton
Short-Term: Jonathan Babineaux
An NFL team that ranks 32nd against the rush has no business in the playoffs, which is why the Bears have to find a run stopper this offseason. Pressuring the quarterback is important but when you're getting gashed for 200 yards a game on the ground, opposing QBs become almost irrelevant.
Thornton would provide stability for many years as a run stopper inside. Alongside a healthy Stephen Paea, Thornton would instantly cure much of what ailed Chicago's defense last year. A practice-squad-player-turned-starter, Thornton won't cost an arm and a leg.
If the Bears need a one-year fill-in, Babineux is that player. The solid veteran isn't headed to the Pro Bowl anytime soon but he's still a very effective defensive tackle. At 32, he'll come relatively cheap and would provide much-needed stability to Chicago's front seven.
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.