Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace has made a concerted effort to rebuild a defensive front seven that has been a mangled mess since Brian Urlacher's departure following the 2012 campaign.
To that end, Pace last year signed OLB Pernell McPhee on the first day of free agency and then invested a second-round pick in NT Eddie Goldman. He followed that up this off-season by signing inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, who were widely considered the top two ILBs on the market, and interior space eater Akiem Hicks.
With Lamarr Houston and Willie Young entering 2016 at full health, the Bears should have a much improved front seven, one that will include at least three new faces in the starting lineup.
Yet there's still work left for Pace. Opposite Hicks at 5-technique, the club has questions. The jury is still out on Ego Ferguson, Mitch Unrein is more of a rotational two-gapper who provides very little on passing downs, while Will Sutton isn't a great fit for the club's 3-4 system and doesn't appear to be in the team's long-term plans.
Additionally, Young will be 31 this season and is in the last year of his contract, so long-term depth at outside linebacker must also be addressed.
Going into the 2016 NFL Draft, the goal for Pace should be to solidify the defensive front seven, providing depth and stability at each position. By doing that, the Bears can get back to being a defensive heavyweight, the theory upon which the success of the franchise has been built.
Obviously, finding impact players at 3-4 defensive end and outside linebacker is not an exact science. The process will be made tougher this year by the wealth of talent at both positions early in the draft. It's conceivable that 20 front five defenders will come off the board in the first two rounds of this year's selection process, while some consider this the deepest defensive line draft in recent history.
With so many options, Pace must find a way to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
One test performed at the NFL Scouting Combine, as well as at most pro days, is crucial in evaluating defensive line talent: the 3-cone drill.
The 3-cone drill is composed of three cones placed in an L shape. The player runs to the first cone, reverses back to start, heads back to the first cone again, takes a right, goes around the second cone and then sprints back to start.
It's a move that shows how well a player can stop, sink his hips and change directions. Compared to the 40-yard dash, the 3-cone drills gives a much clearer indication of a prospect's burst and ability to quickly reach top speed. It's the drill that most clearly mimics what a player will be asked to do on the game field.
This is especially so for offensive and defensive linemen, who are asked to change directions multiple times on each and every snap. Short-area quickness is a must for successful trench players.
In Chicago's search for a starting 5-technique, the 3-cone drill is essential. Here are the top 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL, ranked by their 3-cone time. We've also included their short shuttle results, which is another good indicator of a player's agility, as well as their combined score from both tests.
Anything below 7.0 is the 3-cone is exceptional for a 5-technique, which is why J.J. Watt is considered one of the best players in the NFL. Notice that not a single down lineman on this list tested poorly in the 3-shuttle.
For the league's top 3-4 outside linebackers, the same correlation exists.
Von Miller is widely considered the best edge rusher in the league and almost singlehandedly won the Broncos the Super Bowl last year. And what do you know, he was a beast in both the 3-cone and the short shuttle. His 10.76 combined total is elite, as is DeMarcus Ware's 10.90.
Just like the best 5-techniques, no top-tier NFL OLB posted a poor 3-cone result. More than any other physical test teams use to evaluate prospects, the 3-cone, in coordination with the short shuttle, is the best indicator of a front seven player's potential. Obviously, more goes into than just these two tests - size, length, wingspan, motor and character, to name a few - but in terms of pure athleticism in the most telling areas, 3-cone and short shuttle are the way to go.
With that in mind, here are the top 3-cone results amongst front five defenders from the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine.
|James Cowser||Southern Utah||6.80||4.31||11.11||4th-5th|
|Joey Bosa||Ohio State||6.89||4.21||11.10||1st|
|Shilique Calhoun||Michigan State||6.97||4.25||11.22||2nd|
|Dadi Nicolas||Virginia Tech||7.04||4.38||11.42||6th-7th|
|Noah Spence||Eastern Kentucky||7.21||4.35||11.56||1st-2nd|
|Victor Ochi||Stony Brook||7.24||4.40||11.64||7th|
|Emmanuel Ogbah||Oklahoma State||7.26||4.50||11.76||1st-2nd|
|Carl Nassib||Penn State||7.27||4.37||11.64||3rd|
Joey Bosa reportedly had a poor combine showing because of his 4.86 40-yard dash, but when we look at the tests that matter, it's clear why he's considered a potential Top 5 pick in this year's draft.
For the Bears at 11th overall, Shaq Lawson stands out on this list. He's considered a Top 15 prospect and will likely be on the board when Pace selects in the first round. Lawson's 11.37 combined total is on par with Justin Houston, who led the league in 2014 with 22.0 sacks.
In the second round, Shilique Calhoun is a good looking edge-rush prospect, as are Bronson Kaufusi and potentially Noah Spence, if he falls due to off-field concerns.
The player who benefits most from this evaluation is James Cowser of Southern Utah, whose 6.80 3-cone is better than almost every elite pass rusher in the NFL not named Von Miller. In the 4th round, Coswer is worth the investment, as he clearly has outstanding athletic traits.
Also, pay close attention to Florida's Alex McCalister on the third day of the draft. He was kicked off the team last year but his 4.00 short shuttle set a combine record, while his 11.01 combined total tops every player mentioned in this story other than Miller and Ware. McCalister has loads of baggage but also the raw skills to warrant a seventh-round pick.
Here are the remaining 2016 defensive-line prospects who are projected to be drafted in the first two rounds:
|Robert Nkemdiche||Ole Miss||DNP||DNP||NA|
|Vernon Butler||Louisiana Tech||7.82||4.76||12.58|
|Chris Jones||Mississippi State||7.44||4.62||12.06|
|Austin Johnson||Penn State||7.84||4.75||12.59|
DeForest Buckner's 11.98 combined total is comparable to both Sheldon Richards and Muhammad Wilkerson, which is why he's considered a Top 10 prospect. Yet he's the only remaining first- or second-round D-line prospect with a combined score of less than 12.00.
Sheldon Rankins' 7.44 3-cone drill is solid, as his 12.03 combined score. If he were two inches taller (he's only 6-1) he'd be a Top 10 pick in this draft. He's still considered a first-round prospect and his test scores show some serious upside.
Yet other than Chris Jones, there are no other players on this list who stand out in the 3-cone drill. If Jones falls to the Bears in the second round, which is unlikely, Pace should run to the podium to select him.