The Chicago Bears surely had no idea what they were getting in 2003 when they signed free-agent defensive lineman Israel Idonije to the practice squad. All the physical attributes (6-6, 275) were there, but Idonije was as raw as sushi and needed years of polishing.
Working as both defensive tackle and defensive end, he started just eight games his first six seasons with the team. In 2010, former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli chose to see if Idonije had the chops to be a starter opposite Julius Peppers and installed him full-time at defensive end.
Idonije rewarded the team with a career-high 8.0 sacks, which tied him with Peppers for the team lead that season. For the last three years, Idonije has been the model of consistency, playing stout run defense and contributing as a consistent pass rusher.
He has shown toughness as well, playing through a leg injury that hobbled him for most of 2011. As a result, his numbers dropped from the previous season and GM Phil Emery was only willing to re-sign Idonije to a one-year deal last offseason. He ended up losing the starting job to Corey Wootton, roughly at the same time he turned 32 year old.
So is Idonije, an aging veteran backup, worth re-signing again this offseason?
First, we must put Idonije's demotion last season into context. He was relegated to backup duty because Wootton had a breakout year, not because of poor play. In fact, one could say Idonije had the best season of his career last year. He was second on the team with 7.5 sacks and, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he graded the highest of any Bears defensive lineman last season against the run, by a wide margin.
His 37 quarterback hurries tied him with Peppers for the most on the team, while his overall pass-rush grade from PFF was 2.5 points higher than Peppers. In essence, Idonije was arguably the most consistent and effective defensive lineman on Chicago's roster in 2012 – more so than both Peppers and Wootton, and at the same level as Henry Melton.
Yet his value went beyond that, as Idonije also showed tremendous. As injuries and poor play hampered the defensive tackle position, Idonije willingly slid inside and served as the club's nickel pass rusher out of the tackle spot. In fact, he ended up starting two games late in the campaign at DT, where he was very effective, picking up 2.0 sacks and six QB hurries in just 212 snaps at the position.
Idonije may be aging but he showed last season that he still has plenty left in the tank. He's a nine-year veteran but much of that was spent as a special teams player and rotational lineman, so his legs are relatively fresh. There's no reason to think he can't still be productive for another season or two. He's also an outstanding locker room leader and representative of the team.
The Bears have talent at defensive end with Wootton, Peppers and last year's first-round pick Shea McClellin, yet the cupboard is relatively bare at defensive tackle, where Henry Melton is set to hit free agency. Idonije's positional versatility would give Chicago's front office personnel flexibility heading into free agency and the draft.
For all these reasons, the Bears must look past Idonije's age and re-sign him for another two years. He does too many good things in Chicago to just let him walk in free agency.
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.