Projected starter: Tommie Harris
Even though six-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher calls the plays in the huddle and five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers was brought in to provide the majority of the pass rush, it's Harris who plays the most important position on the field for the Chicago defense. As the three-technique defensive tackle, his job is to line up between the enemy guard and tackle, penetrate into the backfield with a quick first step and blow up plays before they ever have a chance to develop. Harris used to do that as well as anyone in the league, when he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection himself, but the Bears haven't seen that player very often the last few seasons – they need him back in the worst way.
Projected backup: Henry Melton
With Israel Idonije being moved back to the defensive end position and expected to be a part of the rotation there, all of a sudden the Bears don't have an experienced three technique behind Harris. Melton spent his entire rookie campaign on injured reserve, and while he was drafted as a defensive end, three technique has to be all the more foreign to him since he was originally a running back at Texas. Even if the Monsters of the Midway are fortunate enough to recapture the Harris they had circa 2006, before he destroyed his knee and hamstring due to a devastating double injury, they still need a reliable reserve because the demands of the position only allow him to be on the field about 60 percent of the time.
Harris had an up-and-down season a year ago, both on the field and off, sometimes resembling the player that was once the best three technique in the game but all too often disappearing from the stat sheet completely. Coach Lovie Smith was even forced to suspend Harris for a game, citing that he wasn't putting forth the effort in practice – he has sat out Wednesday workouts for quite some time – and other players deserved to suit up on Sunday more than he did. His 2.5 sacks were a career low, as were his 24 tackles, and it's certainly fair to wonder if the reason for his lack of effectiveness has less to do with his knee and more to do with his head.
There is absolutely no reason for Harris to be babied as much as he has been in the past, unless, of course, the extent of his previous injuries are much worse than the Bears would have the media believe and he has permanent damage from which he'll never fully recover. Smith says Harris is healthy, Harris himself says he is healthy, yet there he was taking it rather easy during the offseason program and getting maybe half the reps his fellow defensive starters were. He can still be a great player, and the addition of Peppers can only help him this season, but Bears fans need to understand that the Defensive Player of the Year candidate they saw for much of 2006 is likely gone forever.
DT Tommie Harris
I'd much rather have ...
Kevin Williams in Minnesota. Now 30 years old and probably on the down side of his career, the leaner half of Minny's "Williams Wall" continues to get it done and is coming off his fourth Pro Bowl berth in the last five years. He benefits from having Pat Williams line up next to him, plus Jared Allen commands a ton of attention as a pass rusher, but it's not like Harris has been playing with a bunch of stiffs lately. Williams has always been a better run defender, too.
But he's better than ...
Brandon Mebane in Seattle. Like the Bears, the Seahawks have employed a light and quick defense in recent years, and Mebane has been brought along to eventually be their Harris-type player at three technique. He is a solid tackle and should only improve, but he's not a Pro Bowl-caliber defender at this point. When properly motivated and operating at full capacity, Harris can be special and single-handedly take over any game, like he did in a 37-6 destruction of the then-undefeated Seahawks back in Week 4 of 2006, when he authored arguably the best performance of his career.
Confidence-o-Meter: 6.4 *
Before the injury, Harris may have registered the highest number on the Confidence-o-Meter of any player on Chicago's roster. What future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp was to those dominating Tampa Bay defenses of the late-1990s and early-2000s, Harris was doing the same sort of things for the Bears when they won back-to-back division titles in 2005-06. Harris claims to be 100-percent healthy and ready to be a difference maker again, but Bears fans won't truly believe it until they start seeing it on a weekly basis like before.
* Much like Ron Swanson from "Parks and Recreation" came up with a scientifically perfect 10-point scale for human beauty, JC has done the same with confidence in three techniques. 10.0 is John Randle with a face full of eye black.
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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.