With Alex Brown ruthlessly shipped out of town last week, we know one thing and one thing only at the defensive end position for the Bears this season: Julius Peppers is going to be starting somewhere.
But having played both right and left end during his eight-year stint in Carolina, and earning multiple trips to the Pro Bowl at each, Peppers offers the kind of versatility that makes a defensive-minded coach like Lovie Smith dream of the possibilities. His last campaign playing primarily left end with the Panthers (2007), the two-time All-Pro slumped to a career-worst 2.5 sacks and missed the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2003. After switching to right end before the start of 2008, Peppers racked up 24.5 sacks in his next 30 games and became an all-star again twice.
According to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, in a story published Saturday, he believes the Bears would be wise to push Peppers back to his original spot on the left side of the line.
"Who would you rather have Peppers lined up against," Pompei asked rhetorically, "Pro Bowl left tackle Bryant McKinnie or Phil Loadholt for the Vikings? Pro Bowl left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson or journeyman Damien Woody for the Jets? Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters or Winston Justice for the Eagles? Pro Bowl left tackle David Diehl or William Beatty for the Giants? Left tackle Jake Long, the former No. 1 pick in the draft, or Vernon Carey for the Dolphins?"
Needless to say, McKinnie is a better blocker in Minnesota than Loadholt. As are Ferguson and Diehl for the two New York teams over Woody and Beatty. Carey is solid in Miami, but Long might be the best in the business pretty soon.
However, if you're paying Peppers like he's the best defensive player in the league, isn't he expected to be effective against even the top-tier tackles?
If anything, the Bears need to make pass-rushing life easier on the D-end lined up opposite their shiny new toy. Having Peppers destroy every one of the Loadholts out there means all those McKinnies are going to be battling inferior defenders. Not only can blocking tight ends and chipping running backs assisting the right tackle slow Peppers down, but Chicago would be all but conceding a critical matchup against the left tackle across the formation.
All signs point to Israel Idonije being the other starting defensive end for the Bears in 2010, even though he was one of the more efficient pass rushers in the NFL from the tackle position last season backing up Tommie Harris. Brown's ouster makes room for Idonije atop the depth chart, and Smith said Tuesday that Idonije has already lost a few pounds in preparation for his new role. Smith's faith in Idonije – and Mark Anderson, Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton – made the release of Brown much more palatable, although he admitted the locker room "won't be the same" without him.
The aforementioned Anderson crashed miserably when curiously promoted over Brown in 2007, unable to match the 12-sack performance he put together the season before as a rookie. It's fair to assume the coaching staff has learned its lesson, meaning Anderson will likely continue to be used off the bench in obvious passing situations. Give him credit for defending the run last year better than he had in the past, but asking him to do so down to down at right or left end would be irresponsible.
Since most offenses are right-handed, especially on the ground, the left end in a 4-3 needs to be a big body capable of holding the point of attack, shedding blockers and making tackles – that sounds more like Idonije than Anderson.
Therefore, flying in the face of Pompei's opinion for the Trib, the best lineup for the Bears would be Peppers at right end, Idonije at left end and Anderson as the No. 3 subbing on either side depending on who needs a breather. Yes, that means Peppers will be facing a better quality blocker each and every Sunday, but that shouldn't be too much to ask for a possible future Hall of Famer given $40 million-plus in guaranteed money – he gets to rush from a right-handed quarterback's blind side, too. From a playing-time perspective, expect Anderson to be on the field nearly as much as Idonije since he can also spell Peppers here and there, although Peppers didn't come off the field very often in Carolina.
Still, until veteran minicamp begins in May and the media have access to practice at Halas Hall once again, it's all speculation at this point.
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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