The biggest weaknesses on the Chicago Bears roster last season were safety and defensive tackle. Injuries and poor play decimated both spots, resulting in a defense that was gashed at a historic rate.
The Bears did little in free agency to make significant upgrades to either position. They brought in a one-year starter in Ryan Mundy and an underachieving M.D. Jennings to compete at safety, and did little more than re-sign Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins at defensive tackle.
In the draft though, GM Phil Emery addressed both weaknesses in the middle rounds, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third round respectively, and traded up for Brock Vereen in the late fourth.
The Bears readily admit Ferguson is a project but the team has high hopes for both Sutton and Vereen this season.
As such, it was no surprise that both players were working with the first team during OTA practice this week.
Sutton was filling in for Ratliff, who did not attend practice on Tuesday. Sutton will move back to the second team once the veteran returns but his one-day rise to the first team shows his quick ascension into the defensive line rotation. Sutton should play a significant role this year on passing downs as the club's 3-technique.
"That's what I excel at. I can play anywhere they want me to but 3-tech is where they see me as a good fit on this defense," Sutton said.
With Ratliff in the starting lineup, the Bears would be happy for Sutton to play a complementary role the next few seasons before taking over starting duties in 2016. Yet with Vereen, there's more urgency for early returns.
Chris Conte is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and the Bears are hopeful he'll be ready by the start of training camp. Six-year team veteran Craig Steltz has also been on the shelf the first two weeks of OTAs.
As a result, the Bears turned to Mundy and Jennings during the first week of practice. Yet last week, Vereen was alongside Mundy with the first team.
This is significant. Jumping over a veteran like Jennings, who started the past two years for the Green Bay Packers, in just one week shows the potential Chicago's coaching staff sees in Vereen. With Conte and Steltz watching from the sidelines, Vereen has the opportunity to entrench himself in the starting lineup, which would give him a fighting chance to earn the gig once Conte returns in training camp.
The quick acclimation of Vereen and Sutton to Chicago's defense is very promising for this young duo of defenders … or is it?
Let's face it, the Bears are paper thin at safety. The team's veterans have limited upside and even less production. At least with Vereen, a physical and athletic player, there's hope he can be a solidifying presence on the back end. Assuming that about any of the others safeties on the roster would be wishful thinking at best.
It's a great sign Vereen is getting starter reps but things could change quickly if he can't continue along his upward path. The same goes for Sutton. While both players could have value in the long run, it's far too early to anoint them saviors.
Still, at this point neither player appears to be a bust, which is very good for the team. Anyone who saw Brandon Hardin during his first few practices knows what a lost, overmatched player looks like. Vereen does not have that look and neither does Sutton.
First-round cornerback Kyle Fuller is also a part of the first-team rotation, so the Bears are fully invested in their youth on the defensive side of the ball. We'll soon find out if these rookies have earned their new roles or if it's due to a lack of quality competition.
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.