Last year, one could argue that defensive lineman Israel Idonije was the MVP of the defensive front seven. For the Chicago Bears defense in 2012, success would have been much tougher to come by without the 10-year veteran.
Idonije was, as usual, very strong against the run and improved his pass rush as well, picking up 7.5 sacks, second most on the team behind only Julius Peppers' 10.5. According to Pro Football Focus, Idonije's overall grade in 2013 was higher than any other defensive end on the team, even Peppers, who made his eighth trip to the Pro Bowl last year.
Yet Idonije played more than just defensive end. As he did earlier in his career, Idonije also rotated at defensive tackle when injuries and general poor play by the backups severely weakened the interior of the defensive line. His versatility and production against both the pass and run, as well as his leadership in the locker room, was key in the club's defensive success last season.
Despite that, the Bears have still not re-signed Idonije. Following the draft, GM Phil Emery left the door open to bringing him back but it didn't sound imminent.
"Well right now Izzy isn't a part of the team," said Emery. "If he comes in, obviously, there will be great competition, if we ended up signing him some day. But right now he is not a member of the Bears."
I do believe the Bears want to re-sign Idonije but the club's lack of cap space, which will dwindle to penance after signing the six draft picks, is holding back his return. And it could end up that one of those selections, sixth rounder Cornelius Washington, could make Idonije expendable.
Typically, the presence of a sixth-round pick isn't a major threat to the future of an existing veteran. If you can find a quality special teams player in the second to last round of the draft, you should be happy. Anything else is normally gravy.
Yet with Washington, the expectations are a bit higher. Heading into the draft, many experts had him graded as a potential second- or third-round pick. Playing in the SEC, he was a three-year starter whose production never matched his potential. He was also suspended two games his junior season after being arrested for driving under the influence.
As a senior, his stats dropped off dramatically, mustering just 22 tackles and half a sack. With lackluster numbers and a DUI in the books, Washington's stock plummeted.
Yet there's no denying his outstanding athleticism. At the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, Washington participated in four drills and was a top performer at his position in each one. At 6-4, 265 pounds, he ran a 4.55 40-yard dash, posted 36 reps in the bench press, had a 39-inch vertical jump and a 10-8 broad jump. Those are some sick numbers.
"I think the biggest surprise to me was Cornelius Washington," ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said earlier this week. "Even though his sack totals were very low, his talent is enormous. I thought he played better in certain games than people gave him credit for, and I thought he had a nice Senior Bowl week. He's got too much talent to last to the sixth round, but when people get that underachiever label, sometimes that hurts you."
Former NFL scout Dan Shonka of Ourlads.com came on this week's Bear Report Radio podcast and talked very highly of Washington's potential.
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"We think that guy's got a chance to do something because he's very athletic," Shonka said. "I think if you put his hand down on the edge in a four-man front, I see the Bears using that big athletic guy as a nickel pass rusher."
Shonka sees Washington having much more success as a pass rusher in the Bears' 4-3 system than he did as a two-gap defensive end in Georgia's 3-4.
"I do. I would put him down in a 4-3 but I think he can play [standing] up because he is athletic enough, but he's probably better playing down. So I think the Bears got him there and I think he's going to be a very good player for the Bears. I really do."
Idonije visited with the Tennessee Titans earlier this week but did not sign with the team. He told the Chicago Tribune he'd rather be signed sooner than later but so far there haven't been a lot of suitors knocking down his door. Now that the draft is over, he should start getting more attention but there's no guarantee a 32-year-old will catch on anywhere.
If that happens, the Bears could take a wait-and-see approach. If Washington shows the type of athleticism in minicamps and OTAs that many expect of him, the coaching staff may feel comfortable going forward with the rookie. If he struggles, then Idonije becomes a priority again. Either way, Chicago ends up with a quality player in the defensive-line rotation.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.