Heading into this offseason, it was unclear which Chicago Bears defensive tackle would replace Amobi Okoye. As the backup 3-technique behind Henry Melton in 2011, Okoye earend 4.0 sacks and was a solid nickel pass rusher. Yet Okoye chose to sign with Tampa Bay during free agency, leaving a hole on Chicago's roster.
Currently, the team is experimenting with Israel Idonije at defensive tackle on passing downs, and placing Shea McClellin on the edge. Yet that is a specific rush package that may only be used a handful of times each game.
As far as an every down defensive tackle, Nate Collins has emerged as the frontrunner.
Collins was signed before training camp after two forgettable seasons in Jacksonville. The former undrafted free agent has shown great explosiveness off the ball and a relentless motor, outshining the other DTs on the roster with whom he's battling for a roster spot.
"Nate Collins is coming along really well," coordinator Rod Marinelli said this week.
Collins is a raw player that has never started an NFL game. Yet his quickness off the ball, the trait Marinelli covets most from his defensive linemen, is impossible to overlook.
"I feel that was one of my strengths: always getting off the rock," Collins told Bear Report after yesterday's preseason game. "Coach Marinelli, from Day 1, he just told me, ‘One of your biggest things is you get off the ball and you have a lot of energy.' He was like, ‘If you do that every day, I'll make sure that everything else is going to come easy to you.' It's a really simple defense and it's been working out for me."
In the preseason opener, Collins tied for third on the team with three total tackles and also picked up a sack. He showed great ability in hitting the gaps and penetrating into the backfield.
"[Marinelli] tells me all the time, when I get off the ball, I'm unblockable," said Collins. "I'm trying to just live up to that and keep my hat in the crack, what we do here."
So far, Collins has excelled in Chicago. During last night's contest, Collins again was nearly unstoppable. For the second week in a row, he was third on the team in tackles (4), one of which went for a loss.
Collins has been great at 3-technique, where one-gap penetration is the goal, yet he's been just as solid eating up space at nose tackle.
"I've actually been swinging back and forth," he said. "I played a good amount of nose tonight. I feel like I did better at nose than I did 3-tech today. That's one of the things in the NFL, the more you can do, it's more appealing to the coaches."
Right now, Collins' play on the field is appealing to everyone, including the coaches. It's the reason he has separated himself from Jordan Miller, John McCargo and Brian Price, the players he must beat out to earn a roster spot.
Collins may never be able to replace Okoye on passing downs but he may not have to, as Idonije appears capable of filling that role. Yet Collins' strength, power, explosiveness and all-day motor, combined with his positional flexibility, should make a valuable member of the defensive-line rotation this season.
Note: Collins has been suspended from the Bears' first regular season game against the Indianapolis Colts due to violating the league's substance abuse policy. He'll be first eligible to play in Week 2 versus the Green Bay Packers.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.