After one of the worst defensive performances in franchise history last year, Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery has worked extensively this offseason upgrading the defensive line. He has signed four defensive ends – Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Israel Idonije – as well as re-signing defensive tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins.
Yet there's still work to be done, particularly at DT. Ratliff is 32, Collins is recovering from an ACL tear and Stephen Paea has yet to reach his potential. And that's as deep as the roster goes for defensive tackle. Young, Houston and Idonije may rotate inside but that really isn't a long-term, full-time option.
Considering this need, it's likely Emery will address defensive tackle early in the 2014 NFL Draft.
With that in mind, let's break down in detail each of the defensive tackles projected to land in the top three rounds, with an eye toward players who can fill the Bears' needs.
Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh (6-1, 285)Donald is the top defensive tackle in this draft because of his ability to penetrate gaps and be disruptive in the backfield. He was highly successful in college, dominated at the Senior Bowl and put on a show at the scouting combine. He's explosive off the ball, has active hands and he's very powerful (his 35 bench-press reps were second most amongst defensive linemen in Indianapolis). The only knock on Donald is his size, which is less than ideal. Some believe big offensive linemen will engulf him, despite the success of the Bengals' Geno Atkins (6-1, 303), a two-time Pro Bowler. Donald is a pure 3-technique tackle who can collapse the pocket in the face of the quarterback, which is exactly what the Bears need.
Projected: Top 15
Timmy Jernigan, Florida State (6-2, 299)Jernigan is a hybrid player. He's not exceptionally quick off the ball and can lumber at times. So some consider him a nose tackle. Yet Jernigan is extremely agile and, despite his big frame, he moves like a much smaller player, with arguably the best hand usage of any DT in this year's class. It's unlikely Jernigan will develop into a double-digit sack producer – he had just 4.5 sacks last season – but he does everything good, and he's a strong run stopper. Jernigan has the type of versatility Emery desires, so expect him to be on Chicago's short list at 14th overall.
Projected: Top 20
Louis Nix, Notre Dame (6-2, 331)The Bears have long functioned in a 4-3 Cover 2 system where nose tackles should be quick and not the lumbering space eaters coveted by 3-4 teams. After a year in which they finished 32nd against the run, and with a defensive coordinator who has been given autonomy to install any system he feels fit, that thinking may change. If the Bears want to get stouter up front, they might need to consider a player like Nix, who should be able to clog two gaps with ease at the next level. Nix is enormous and quick off the ball in spit of his size. He has a high motor but conditioning and injuries are a concern. He's considered a late first-round pick, so the Bears would only be interested in Nix in a trade-back scenario, or if he dropped to them in the second.
Projected: Late 1st Round
Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota (6-6, 310)Few defensive tackles in this draft have Hageman's combination of size, speed and athleticism. He flashed dominance during his collegiate career, although consistency was an issue. Hageman had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, routinely driving the nation's best offensive linemen backward. He has positional versatility and scheme versatility, so he's going to be attractive to nearly every NFL team. Yet, despite his physical attributes, Hageman never put it all together on the field. He often takes plays off and does not have the same all-day motor as the three players at the top of this list. He has tons of potential but the light hasn't yet gone off for Hageman, which is why he'll likely fall out of the first round. If he drops to the Bears in the second, he'll be tough to pass up.
Projected: 1st-2nd Round
Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (6-4, 304)Tuitt is a former prep tight end who tallied 18.5 sacks for the Irish the past two years combined. He's a wide-bodied defender who played as much defensive end as tackle. He's a physical specimen with great raw strength. He's slow off the ball but once he gets moving, Tuitt can steamroll. Some consider him an overachiever, as he's not all that athletic, yet his motor and strong desire to succeed made him very productive in college. His skill set likely makes him a better fit in a 3-4 defense as a 5-technique. He's a borderline first rounder and won't likely fall to the Bears in Round 2.
Projected: 1st-2nd Round
Dominique Easley, Florida (6-2, 288)Like Donald, Easley is a pure 3-technique under tackle. He's explosive off the ball and hits gaps hard. He has very quick feet, which allows him to maneuver through the trash in pursuit. He uses his hands well and was a team captain for the Gators. Easley has the skill set of a Top 10 player but he's a red flag prospect due to ACL tears in both knees, the second one coming in Week 3 last season. Both injuries came on non-contact plays. If he can fully recover and stay off injured reserve, he has Pro Bowl potential at the next level. For the Bears, Easley could be the disruptive force in the middle the team needs, but the injuries make him a huge risk.
Projected: 2nd Round
Will Sutton, Arizona State (6-1, 303)Sutton is the two-time reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He has great burst off the ball, with a knack for anticipating the snap. He has a strong bull rush and a wicked spin move. He can shoot gaps with the best of them and he was very disruptive in the backfield. As far as talent and production, few DTs in this draft compare to Sutton, yet there are concerns about his short arms (30 5/8 inches) and weight, which ballooned to 315 pounds his senior year. Yet Sutton has shed most of those extra pounds and reportedly weighed 296 at his pro day. When it's all said and done, Sutton could turn out to be the big sleeper amongst defensive tackles in this year's class. He has the potential to be a very good 3-technique and the Bears should give him strong consideration if he's available in the second round.
Projected: 2nd Round
Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina (6-4, 297)Quarles was one of the nation's leaders amongst defensive tackle in sacks (9.5) last year. He has ideal body type, which includes long arms, and flashes very good power. He's light on his feet and uses his hands well to shed blocks. That said, his production in college had more to do with opposing teams double-teaming Jadeveon Clowney than it did with Quarles' dominance. Plays were funneled to him and he took full advantage. Still, he's shown the ability to win in 1-on-1 situations, and the Bears have a defensive end with the most career sacks of any active player (Allen) so Quarles would get plenty more single-block opportunities in Chicago, where he excels.
Projected: 2nd-3rd Round
Ego Ferguson, LSU (6-3, 315)Of all the DTs on this list, Ferguson may have the most potential. He's a raw athlete with only one year's starting experience and is not a Day 1 starter. He doesn't have much of a pass-rush arsenal and lacks ideal strength (24 bench-press reps). That said, Ferguson has ideal size, speed and balance. He shows good awareness against the run and the ability to shoot gaps as a 3-technique. He had limited impact for the Tigers last year (1.0 sack) but scouts see him as a player with high upside if put in the right position. If the Bears think new defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni can develop Ferguson to his potential, they'll be getting a steal if he falls to the third round.
Projected: 2nd-3rd Round
DaQuan Jones, Penn State (6-4, 322)Jones is a powerful nose tackle who fires off the snap and has the potential to overwhelm blockers. He has a very strong hand punch and his bull rush can collapse the pocket. When his motor is running he can be dominant but he too often takes plays off, and he doesn't have much of a pass-rush arsenal. As a pure space eater, with the potential for much more, Jones would be a strong third-round selection for the Bears.
Projected: 2nd-3rd Round
Anthony Johnson, LSU (6-3, 308)Johnson is a player full of potential, one who led the Tigers with seven tackles for loss last season. He has great size and he comes off the ball hard. He's athletic and at just 20 years old, he still has a lot of room for improvement. Johnson is a bit of a tweener and it's unclear whether his best fit as at 3-technique or nose tackle. Considering his relatively disappointing junior year, raw skill set and the fact he's not a Day 1 starter, the Bears would be wise not to reach for Johnson.
Projected: 3rd Round
The Pick: Aaron Donald
This is an easy one, as Donald is the best 3-technique in this draft. He has the potential to make Bears fans forget Henry Melton ever donned the navy and orange. With three new edge rushers bringing pressure out wide, Donald could feast on the 1-on-1 matchups he'll surely get playing next to Allen, Young and Houston.
If the Bears want to wait on DT, then Daquan Jones makes a lot of sense. He's a nose tackle with disruptive potential, one who would immediately upgrade the run defense.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.