Change is underway for the Chicago Bears. New head coach Marc Trestman is building his coaching staff as we speak, pulling coaches from all over the pro ranks. There are still a few spots to be filled, so don't expect Trestman to complete his staff until later this week – he's currently busy scouting prospects at the Senior Bowl.
One coach already on staff is defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who will run a 4-3 system similar to what Chicago fans are used to under Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli.
The only two coaches held over by Trestman from the previous regime are defensive backs coach Jon Hoke and defensive live coach Mike Phair. Both are quality positional coaches and Phair could help the Bears retain one crucial member of the defense.
Let's take a look at the play of Chicago's defensive tackles last season, a group Phair will again oversee in 2013.
If an NFL defense wants to be successful in today's pass-happy NFL, pressuring the quarterback is an absolute necessity. Most teams rely on edge rushers to collapse the pocket, which can be very effective. Yet pressure up the middle, in the quarterback's face, is a common trait amongst truly dominant defenses.
DT Henry Melton
This is where Henry Melton comes in for the Bears. In just his second full season playing defensive tackle, Melton was a beast inside. His 6.0 sacks were third most in the league amongst DTs. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), his 37 total pressures – sacks, hits and hurries combined – were fifth most at the position. His 7.7 Pass Rush Productivity – pressures created on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks – was also fifth best amongst defensive tackles.
Melton has an outstanding blend of size, strength and quickness, which allows him to one-gap penetrate and create havoc in on passing plays. Yet it was his improvement against the run this year that was even more impressive. He led all Bears DTs in tackles (43), four for a loss, and forced two fumbles.
PFF uses a metric called Run Stop Percentage: How many stops a player makes against the run on a per-snap basis. Melton's 11.6 stop percentage was by far the best in the NFL in 2012 amongst defensive tackles – this from a player who struggled mightily against the run in 2011.
For his efforts this year, Melton was named to his first Pro Bowl. He's a 26-year-old Pro Bowler about to enter his prime. Normally, this is great news for an NFL team. But for the Bears, this presents an issue, as Melton is set to become a free agent this offseason.
A player like Melton, who can one-gap penetrate and pressure the middle, is a rare breed in the NFL. Any team in the league that runs a 4-3 would love to have Melton on the roster. Which is why he will command a pretty penny on the open market.
Melton is about to get paid; will the Bears be the ones shelling out the cash?
He told me during the season he wants to stay in Chicago but he was also disheartened when Smith was fired and likely wasn't happy that Marinelli left as well. Based on those two coaching moves alone, it wouldn't be surprising if Melton is leaning toward signing with another team.
That's why keeping Phair – who has played a large role in Melton's development – was so important. Phair could be the one to convince Melton to stay in the Windy City at a relatively discounted price tag, because if the Bears lose Melton, Tucker will be starting from scratch at one of the most-crucial positions on the roster.
The Bears will likely tag Melton if they can't come to an agreement on a long-term deal. Yet the tag will eat up cap space, money that could be better used to lure in free-agent improvements on offense. Locking up Melton for the next three to four years is by far the biggest priority for the team this offseason.
Because Stephen Paea plays nose tackle, he doesn't receive the same attention as Melton. Yet Paea's contributions in the middle cannot be overstated.
The lockout, as well as nagging injuries, stunted Paea's growth last season. A healthy, more-experienced Paea showed up to training camp this year and immediately commandeered the starting NT spot from Matt Toeaina.
Paea started 15 games this season, racking up 25 tackles, three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. His quickness off the ball allows him to get pressure on passing downs, which is rare in the NFL for a nose tackle. Yet his lack of size – he's 300 pounds with his pads on – doesn't allow him to anchor consistently against the run.
Still, Paea is a solid two-dimensional player that has enough speed to play both the nose and under tackle spots. His versatility and strength make him a valuable piece of the puzzle going forward. Entering his third season next year, I expect him to take big strides in 2013.
DT Nate Collins
Collins was signed in the offseason along with four other defensive tackles to compete for the backup 3-technique spot behind Melton. He won that battle in camp, showing solid explosiveness and strength. He was inactive until Week 8, at which time he became a full-time member of the DT rotation.
Collins played mainly nose tackle, yet did get occasional snaps at the under tackle. Overall, he was a positive for the Bears during the second half of the season. PFF ranked his performance second best amongst Chicago DTs. He didn't pick up a sack, but he did have nine hurries in just 115 pass rush snaps. His 6.5 Pass Rush Productivity was also second best of all Bears defensive tackles.
Collins did fade down the stretch and was de-activated for the final contest of 2012. He obviously still has more to prove in the eyes of Chicago's coaches, particularly Phair. Yet he played well enough to deserve another invite to training camp this year. If he can again shine in Bourbonnais, and build on last year's performance, he could again become a valuable member of the DT rotation in 2013.
Okoye was signed a week before the season started after being released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was supposed to step in and fill the role of Melton's backup, which he did admirably in 2011.
That never happened. In fact, Okoye was so bad in 2012, the team de-activated him in Week 8 and outright cut him in Week 13. Due to injuries, the team re-signed him for the final three games but his impact was minimal.
He will not be returning to the Windy City next year.
After starting the last two seasons at nose tackle, Matt Toeaina was passed up by Paea during training camp this year and never recovered. He was active for just four games this year, playing in three, and finished the season on injured reserve.
Like Okoye, Toeaina's time in Chicago is over.
Injuries late in the year forced Idonije to slide inside from defensive end to defensive tackle, the position he played at the start of his NFL career. Despite not having played DT for more than three years, Idonije performed very well inside. As a nickel pass rusher (125 passing snaps), he had 10 total pressures, good for a Pass Rush Productivity of 6.5, per PFF – tying him with Collins for second best on the team at the position.
Idonije is 32 years old but he showed this season he still has plenty left in the tank. His positional flexibility, combined with his experience, gives him plenty of value, despite his age. On top of that, he's one of the team's veteran leaders in the locker room.
Idonije has proven his worth to the organization time and again and deserves to spend at least one more year, if not two, in Chicago.
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.