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Chicago Bears 2016 Draft Preview: Defensive Tackle (Rounds 1-3)

Detailed analysis of the top interior defenders the Chicago Bears will be targeting in the 2016 NFL Draft.

In 2015, the Chicago Bears defense ranked 22nd in the NFL against the run and 26th in opposing yards per carry (4.5). In addition, the Bears finished 22nd in the league with 35 team sacks. 

Any way you slice it, Chicago's defense is in need of improved play from its interior defenders. Last year's second-round nose tackle Eddie Goldman was solid against the run and as a pass rusher, yet there was very little consistent production from the rest of the down linemen. 

With Jarvis Jenkins and Mitch Unrein set to hit free agency, and Will Sutton likely to be cut, the Bears will be searching for starters and depth at both nose tackle and 5-technique defensive end in this year's draft. 

With that in mind, let's break down the top interior defenders in the 2016 NFL Draft. 

A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama (6-4, 307)

Robinson is considered the top defensive tackle in this year's class. A two-year starter for the Crimson Tide, Robinson was a consensus All-American last year after posting 46 tackles, 7.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks. For his efforts, he was named first-team All-SEC and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy. Robinson has a heavy base and good balance, making him hard to move at the point of attack. His strength and 34.5-inch arms allow him to shed one-on-one blocks with ease. He has a shocking hand punch and he's a heavy tackler. Robinson is a one-dimensional pass rusher who relies almost exclusively on his bull rush. He also struggles to maintain consistent pad level. A leader both on and off the field, Robinson is a Day 1 starter who would instantly and dramatically improve Chicago's run defense. 
Projected: Top 15

Andrew Billings, Baylor (6-1, 311)

Billings is a beastly nose tackle with extreme power. A two-year starter at Baylor, he was named All-Big 12 last year after posting 40 tackles, 15.5 for loss and 5.5 sacks. He has a weightlifting background and his 31 bench-press reps were 7th most at this year's scouting combine and 3rd most among defensive tackles. He uses his hands very well to swat away block attempts. Most impressive is his closing speed, which is unusual for a player of his size. That blend of size, power and speed has NFL teams drooling. Billings is a bit top heavy and must improve his balance. He's just 20 years old and is still learning how to play defense - he came to Waco as an offensive lineman - so he's only scratching the surface of his potential. He's a questionable pick for the Bears at 11th overall, especially with Goldman already on the roster, but there's no doubt Billings has the potential to be a star at the NFL level. 
Projected: 1st Round

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss (6-3, 294)

Nkemdiche is an intriguging prospect. A three-year starter for the Rebels, he was named second team All-American by numerous outlets in each of the past two seasons, despite never posting elite numbers. As a junior in 2015, he had just 7 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. He's widely considered one of the most versatile defensive tackles in this year's class, as he proved adept as a penetrating 3-technique as well as a two-gap 5-technique. He's powerful and moves like a player much smaller. He has good explosion off the snap and he moves well laterally. On passing downs, he utilizes a spin move and bull rush. Nkemdiche's lack of production is concerning as is was his arrest late last season after drunkenly falling out of a hotel window, after which he was arrested for marijuana possession. 
Projected: 1st Round

Jarran Reed, Alabama (6-3, 307)

Reed was a JUCO transfer who started two years at Alabama. A pure space-eating nose tackle, Reed has a thick lower body, which he uses to anchor against double teams. He does a great job of keeping his eyes in the backfield and reacting to run plays away from him. He can absorb blockers for days, a critical trait for any 3-4 defenisve linemen. While he's an absolute load against the run, Reed offers nothing as a pass rusher. He came off the field on passing downs in college. He's one-dimensional but the thing he does well, he does exceptionally well. 
Projected: 1st Round

Sheldon Rankins, Louisville (6-1, 299)

Rankins was a productive two-year starter at Louisville, racking up 14.0 sacks the past two years combined. He's powerful at the point of attack with the quickness to be effective on stunts and loops. He was dominant at the Senior Bowl, showing elite hand usage in pass protection drills. He was asked to play some 4-3 defensive end in college and showed surprisingly well off the edge. Rankins is projected as a pure 3-technique defensive takle whose best fit will be in a 4-3 system. 
Projected: 1st Round

Kenny Clark, UCLA (6-3, 314)

A two-year starter for the Bruins, Clark was named first-team All-Pac 12 last season after posting 75 tackles, 11 for loss and 6.0 sacks. He is a former wrestler who works very well in a phone booth. He's explosive off the ball and uses good pad level to gain leverage at the point of attack. He uses a strong initial punch to dislodge from blockers and has great vision to track ball carriers. He played multiple positions at UCLA, lining up at every spot along the defensive line. Clark is a beast against the run but has room to develop his pass-rush arsenal. He'll be a Day 1 producer on run downs in the NFL and has the potential to develop into a quality pass rusher in the long-term. He'll be on the Bears' radar if he falls to the 2nd round. 
Projected: 1st-2nd Round

Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech (6-4, 323) 

Butler is an absolutely massive human being, with 35-inch arms and 10 3/4-inch hands. He was highly productive the past two years, racking up a combined 106 tackles and 23.5 tackles for loss. Butler has very good short-area quickness and can stack and shed with the best of them. He can swallow up double teams and will manhandle single blocks. He has a very good closing burst for a player of his size and he finishes tackles with authority. He doesn't always keep his pad level low, which leads to some wasted plays. A player with his combination of size and athleticism won't last long in this year's draft and the Bears would be very happy if he fell to them in the 2nd round. 
Projected: 1st-2nd Round

Austin Johnson, Penn State (6-4, 314)

Johnson developed dramatically in three years at Penn State and was named first-team All-Big Ten last year after posting 78 tackles, 15 for loss and 6.5 sacks. He has a thick midsection and powerful legs, allowing him to anchor against the run and occupy blockers. His lower-body power allows him to fight through double teams, keeping inside linebackers clean. He's a high-motor player with solid instincts and awareness against the run. He's not a developed pass rusher and relies almost exclusively on his bullrush, although his tree trunks for legs allow him to drive opposing linemen into the face of the quarterback. Johnson has short arms (32 1/4) which doesn't allow him to consistently extend and separate. He labors a bit as a pass rusher and doesn't show explosiveness off the ball. He compares favorably to Eddie Goldman. 
Projected: 1st-2nd Round

Adolphus Washington, Ohio State (6-3, 301)

Washington was productive and consistent as a two-year starter for the Buckeyes, with a combined 97 tackles, 18.5 for loss and 8.5 sacks. He was suspended for Ohio State's bowl game for soliciting a vice squad officer in early December. Despite the off-field concerns, Washington's overall athleticism will land him near the top of the draft. He has great lateral agility and a full arsenal of pass-rush maneuvers. He changes directions very well and can be difficult to corral once he's on the move. He struggles to read and react, and often loses track of the ball, an area in which he'll need to be coached up. He also needs to develop better balance at the snap. A penetrating, agile defender, Washington is best suited as a 3-technique in a 4-3 system. 
Projected: 2nd Round

Chris Jones, Mississippi State (6-6, 310)

Jones was a rotational player his first two years for the Bulldogs before becoming the full-time starter last season. As a junior, he posted 44 tackles, 7.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks. He's very fast off the snap and has quick feet, which helps him effectively work his spin move. He's a penetrating defensive lineman with active hands and upfield ability. He showed unbelievable flashes but lacked consistency. A raw player, Jones has plenty of room for development, particularly with his diagnostic and reactive abilities. A work in progress, Jones has All-Pro talent if he ever reaches his immense potential. 
Projected: 2nd-3rd Round

Sheldon Day, Notre Dame (6-1, 293)

Day was a three-year starer for the Irish and was easily the club's best interior defender last season. Yet, despite being the focal point of opposing offensive lines each week, he still managed 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks. He left South Bend with 32 career tackles for loss. Day is extremely explosive off the snap and has experience at both defensive tackle and defensive end. A one-gap penetrator, he was very disruptive in opposing backfields, showing good agility and closing speed. He plays with a high motor and uses an effective swim move in pass rush. Day doesn't have the girth to be a space eater, making him a much better fit at 3-technique. An extensive injury history is also concerning. He could have value for the Bears as a rotational player in sub sets but he won't have much value as a two-gap down lineman. 
Projected: 3rd Round

The Pick

Vernon Butler: With a potential eight defensive tackles projected to come off the board in the first round, it's easy to see why this is considered one of the best D-lineman drafts in recent history. If the Bears want to nab Robinson or Billings with the 11th overall pick in the draft, few are going to complain. The Bears have to get better against the run and both of those players would be able to start right away and fill gaps along the interior. 

But if the Bears aren't ready to dole out a 1st-round pick on the deepest position in the draft, then waiting until the second round for a player of Butler's caliber makes a lot of sense. He's an absolute beast of a human being, one who could line up next to Goldman and give the Bears roughly 650 pounds of girth between the tackles. That duo would not only clog running lanes but also free up the inside linebackers to make plays. 

Butler isn't a refined pass rusher but he showed flashes of potential at Louisiana Tech. He should be able to eventually match Goldman's 4.5-sack total from last season. If he falls to the Bears in the 2nd round, and they haven't already selected an interior defender, Butler would be a draft-day steal. 


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