What We Learned: Defensive OTAs

The Chicago Bears wrapped up the organized team activities (OTAs) last week, meaning we will not see them again till training camp starts up in July. What did we learn? Start with these five observations:

1. Peppers is as good as advertised from a pure talent perspective
Since Bears fans have gotten used to seeing Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye at defensive end the last few years, plus Mark Anderson hasn't done much of anything since his rookie season in 2006, the presence of Julius Peppers will be impossible to miss. Not only is Peppers incredibly gifted in terms of raw skills, but he is also a hard worker at practice and didn't take many reps off during team drills. According to coach Lovie Smith, his new pass rusher comes in a near 300-pound frame but moves like a defensive back, which should serve him well against both the run and pass.

Do not, however, buy into this idea that just having Peppers on the field is going to make the other 10 defenders better by osmosis, specifically Anderson, as fellow ends Tyler Brayton, Charles Johnson and Everette Brown combined for only 11.5 sacks in Carolina last season.

2. Harris better be ready to play a greater percentage of the snaps
Considering the fact that his knee and hamstring may be permanently damaged after that devastating combination injury he suffered down the stretch in 2006, it's a distinct possibility that we have seen the best of Tommie Harris and he might never be the dominating force of his youth. That's why Israel Idonije was such a nice ace for the Bears to have up their sleeve in 2009, as the versatile 6-6, 270-pounder played a lot of three-technique defensive tackle and was rather effective at that crucial position. But now that the coaching staff has once again asked Idonije to switch spots, this time slimming him down and kicking him out to end, that means there is no clear-cut choice to be the backup three technique behind Harris.

Second-year pro Henry Melton got a lot of reps there in OTAs, as did Matt Toeaina, but Jarron Gilbert still doesn't fit in anywhere and might need to go to a 3-4 team so he can play five-technique defensive end.

3. The best battle of training camp may be at strong-side linebacker
Accomplished linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa may have left some money on the table last offseason as a free agent because he wanted to play for a winner, and it was a double bonus landing with the Bears since he played in Smith's system for one year in St. Louis. Not promised anything before signing on the dotted line, Tinoisamoa moved from his familiar position on the weak side over to the strong side and then beat out incumbent Nick Roach for the starting assignment. Some Bears fans are assuming Tinoisamoa is going to be the starter again, even though he only played parts of two games in 2009 because of knee problems, but Roach isn't going to surrender without a fight and appears to be the leader in the clubhouse heading into the summer.

LB Pisa Tinoisamoa
Warren Wimmer Photography

Both Tinoisamoa and Roach are saying all the team-first things, and they've even spent some time together off the field, but while both of them are good enough to start in this league, there is only room for one more LB next to Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher.

4. There is precious little depth behind the starters at corner
Smith and Co. feel pretty good about their starting cornerbacks, with youngster Zack Bowman moving to the left side and veteran Charles Tillman "demoted" over to the right. Both of them are injury prone, as Bowman missed all but one game of his rookie season and Tillman continues to battle back and shoulder issues, but when healthy, Bowman has a knack for the interception and Tillman forces fumbles as well as any defensive back in the NFL. The trouble is, if one of them goes down for any reason, the rest of the depth chart is shaky.

While the best candidate to be the No. 3, Corey Graham, has the size and strength to succeed in this system, he is presently the nickel back in obvious passing situations and isn't getting very many reps at corner these days.

5. It remains to be seen if the safeties are any better than before
The safety situation is much different than it was a season ago, as one former starter, Al Afalava, is stuck getting second- and third-team reps, and the other, Kevin Payne, was dealt to the Rams in the offseason for a conditional seventh-round pick. Recently re-acquired Chris Harris teamed up with annual disappointment Danieal Manning for first-team action throughout OTAs, but with Harris at free safety and Manning at strong safety, both of them appear to be out of place and, therefore, not taking full advantage of their respective skill sets. Craig Steltz did well for himself in OTAs and deserves more of a look in training camp, although top draft choice Major Wright didn't make a lot of plays and might not be ready to contribute.

Just because the names and numbers have been changed doesn't mean the Bears are better off at safety now than they were in 2009, and the fact that the coaches continue to flip-flop the strong and free positions as liberally as they do feels like a more-of-the-same scenario.

Agree? Disagree? Let your voice be heard on our message board RIGHT HERE.

John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

Bear Report Top Stories