Predicting the Final 53: Chicago Bears’ Defense and Special Teams

bearsAs the final deadline for roster cuts looms, NFL teams across the country make some very difficult roster decisions. Teams will release players that they do not want to lose but just do not have room for. Some players are kept on practice squads, while others are snatched up on to new team’s final squads. It is a sad time for the players whose careers are now over, and it is a joyous time for the players who survive the final cut.

The Chicago Bears are going through their own difficult decisions now as they trim down to the 53 player limit. More so than the offense, the Bears’ defense faces tougher decisions. More positions were up for grabs until the very end, and more young, talented players had to be cut. Defensive players are also relied on more for special teams too. Here is a look at who makes the Bears final 53-man roster on defense and special teams.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive End (5)

2012 Position Overview:

The Bears 2012 defensive end group had a fantastic season, racking up 28.5 sacks combined. Peppers had another Pro Bowl season with 11.5 of those sacks. Israel Idonije began the season as the starter, but he was later replaced by Corey Wootton. Both had very good seasons as well. Rookie first-round pick Shea McClellin struggled, battling injuries and failing to consistently generate pressure.

 

Julius Peppers

Even at age 33, Peppers is still a dominant defensive end. There is no reason not to expect another double-digit sack season from him. He commands an almost constant double-team from opposing offensive lines and because of that, he makes the rest of the line better. However, he is due 17 million dollars in 2014 and 19 million dollars in 2015, so the Bears will have to make a difficult decision about keeping him in the near future.

 

Corey Wootton

Wootton started to breakout in 2012, and he looks to continue it in 2013. He has looked very good in training camp and preseason, and he could join Peppers in the double-digit club in 2013. The Bears have been experimenting with moving him inside on nickel packages, creating mismatches against smaller interior linemen. The Bears are expecting big things from Wootton.

 

Shea McClellin

The Bears need McClellin to improve greatly to keep the defensive line potent. He has only shown one strong pass-rushing move, the spin, but he became predictable quickly, and his play dropped off. As a first-round pick, expectations are high, and McClellin needs to justify his high draft position with a strong 2013 season. If not, he will be very quickly labeled a bust.

 

Cornelius Washington

Pushing McClellin is Washington, the team’s sixth-round pick in 2013. He too is extremely raw, having played most of his college career as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Because he is still learning the position, he has a lot of developing to do, but he has shown quite a bit of improvement in the preseason alone. As he gets better and better, he will pressure McClellin, which could be a win-win for the Bears.

 

Cheta Ozougwu

Mr. Irrelevant of the 2011 draft, Ozougwu signed with the Bears last offseason and found a spot on the roster all season. He only saw the field for two games, but he showed the ability to generate pressure on the quarterback. He has flown under-the-radar during the 2013 preseason, but his experience gives him the edge on winning the fifth defensive end spot.

 

2013 Preview:

It would be a shock if Peppers did not have at least 10 sacks once again in 2013. He is so good at what he does. Wootton has really looked good too. If he does not eclipse the 10 sack mark, he is going to get pretty darn close. They could form one of the top defensive end combos in the league.

 

Behind them, the Bears are a bit weak. They are relying on McClellin to improve his game significantly, and he has yet to show it so far. He has flashes of brilliance but lacks consistency. Given the amount of rotating the Bears typically do on the defensive line, they need McClellin to play well. Washington is getting better, but he is far from a NFL ready, pass-rush specialist. Ozougwu too likely is not good enough to be relied on heavily, but someone from the group needs to step up for the Bears in 2013.

 

Defensive Tackle (4)

2012 Position Overview:

Henry Melton had a Pro Bowl season with six sacks and 31 tackles, and he was a big reason for the defense’s success due to the pressure he generated from the middle. Nose tackle Stephen Paea was good but not great, getting to the quarterback occasionally but struggling at times against the run. Behind them, Amobi Okoye and Nate Collins provided good pass rushing when used, but both were used sparingly.

 

Henry Melton

Playing on the franchise tag, Melton will once again be playing for a new contract. If he can build off of his successful 2012 season, he will get paid well. He generates great pressure from the middle of the line, causing opposing quarterbacks’ pockets to collapse and blowing up runningbacks before they get out of the backfield. His play is crucial to the Bears’ defensive success.

 

Stephen Paea

The team is also hoping they can get an improved season from Paea in 2013. As the nose tackle, he is relied on more for stopping the run than rushing the passer. Pro Football Focus rated his run-stopping ability as a negative 4.1 in 2012, and the Bears need him to improve in this facet of his game. If he struggles, the Bears could be in the market for two new defensive tackles in the near future.

 

Nate Collins

Statistically, Collins had a quiet 2012 with no sacks and only six tackles in nine games, but he was still able to pressure the quarterback very well. He built off of his 2012 success and has looked good in the preseason. He is now the team’s third defensive tackle and should see the field a bit more in 2013, now reunited with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.

 

Corvey Irvin

Despite an ankle injury keeping him out of the final two preseason games, Irvin has been the most impressive of the defensive tackles competing for a spot. The others, Zach Minter and Christian Tupou, have not shown the pass rushing ability that Irvin has. He has been with the second team most of the offseason and has put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in his two preseason games.

 

2013 Preview:

Melton has proven that he is a consistent pass-rusher and he will find his way to the quarterback once again in 2013. He should get another six or seven sacks easily. Paea needs to step up big time and show that he can be a powerful nose tackle. If he can improve against the run, it will help the defense tremendously.

 

Now with more playing time, Collins has the opportunity to showcase his pass-rushing ability. He is an under the radar player who could provide valuable snaps off the bench. Irvin needs to continue to get better every week and eventually the playing time will come. He has a lot of potential, but he needs to harness it before he can become a significant contributor.

 

Outside Linebacker (5)

2012 Position Overview:

At the Will spot, Lance Briggs started every game and had a great season with two interceptions that were both returned for touchdowns, along with a team-high 73 tackles. On the other side, Nick Roach had a decent season with 50 tackles, but when Brian Urlacher would be injured, he moved inside to middle linebacker. When Roach moved inside, veteran Geno Hayes took over and was serviceable.

 

Lance Briggs

Now calling the plays on the field, Briggs has stepped into the leadership role of the defense. He is running the show and looks to build off another good season. He is already 32 years old, but the Bears are hoping he can continue to perform at a high level. Replacing Urlacher’s leadership will be a tough task, but Briggs seems to be embracing it.

 

James Anderson

Brought in to replace Roach, Anderson has had some success as a member of the Carolina Panthers, reaching 98 tackles in both 2010 and 2011. Known more of his coverage ability, he has struggled against the run at times. He is a good fit in this Bears defense, and there is no reason not to expect him to be successful.

 

Khaseem Greene

Chosen in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, Greene is an extremely athletic linebacker with great speed and awareness. Like Anderson, he struggles against the run, but he’ll have at least a year to develop, as he plays the Will spot like Briggs. He has shown quite a bit of potential and could become a very good linebacker in the future.

 

Blake Costanzo

A special teams ace, Costanzo was an underrated signing of the 2012 offseason. He has never been much of a defensive contributor, although he has looked decent when on the field. His special teams play, however, is very good. A four-phase player, he always seems to be around the ball. His value to the team is often under-stated.

 

J.T. Thomas

Another special teams specialist, Thomas makes the team primarily for that reason. He and Costanzo form a very solid duo. He blocked a punt against the San Diego Chargers, and he too is a large contributor.  He has looked pretty good on defense during the preseason, albeit against second and third-team offenses. His special teams contributions also go under-the-radar, and he is a valuable player.

 

2013 Preview:

Briggs and Anderson should provide some veteran consistency in the linebacking corps that the defense can rely on. They both will probably have 70-plus tackles each and a handful of interceptions between them. The other three linebackers are all great on special teams and should make a positive impact there.

 

Middle Linebacker (2)

2012 Position Overview:

Urlacher would battle knee issues all offseason, and it showed during the regular season. He did not look like the same guy out there. Still, he was able to play 12 games and came away with a pick-six, two forced fumbles and 53 tackles. As mentioned, Roach filled in for him when he was injured.

 

Jon Bostic

Drafted in the second round, Bostic took over as the starter when D.J. Williams injured his calf. Now, he will be the starter week one and is expected to keep the job when Williams returns. He, like many of the Bears linebackers, has struggled against the run at times, but he has excelled in coverage with both his athletic ability and football I.Q. As he develops, he could make Bears fans quickly forget about that number 54 guy.

 

D.J. Williams

Williams was signed to be Urlacher’s short term replacement, and he looked good while on the field. Much like Anderson, Williams was very successful with his previous team, the Denver Broncos. In a 3-4, Williams was asked to rush the quarterback more than he likely will be in Chicago, which is why he was able to generate 10.5 sacks between 2010 and 2011. It is comforting for the Bears to know they have a solid veteran on the bench who can fill in when needed.

 

2013 Preview:

Unless he gets hurt, Bostic will probably keep the starting job for the entire season. He should only get better from game to game as he gains more experience and learns on the fly. Opposing quarterbacks will likely target him, and it will be interesting to see how he responds. Williams new that the starting job was not guaranteed when they signed him, but he should be content knowing he is probably their first option off the bench at any of the three positions should an injury occur.

 

Cornerback (5)

2012 Position Overview:

Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings had historic seasons. Tillman lead the league with 10 forced fumbles, while Jennings led the league with nine interceptions. Both reached the Pro Bowl. At the nickelback spot, the Bears began the season with D.J. Moore, but he would struggle in coverage, despite having two interceptions. He would be replaced by Kelvin Hayden, who would be respectable.

 

Charles Tillman

Tillman had the best season of his career in 2012, but he is now 32 years old, and it is unlikely that he can maintain this level of play for much longer. Until he starts to decline, he should still be a top cornerback in the league. He will be a free agent in 2014, so this season will be very important in determining his next contract. If he continues to force fumbles and make plays, he’ll still get a decent paycheck, even if it is not in Chicago.

 

Tim Jennings

Also a free agent in 2014, Jennings is younger and less consistent. His 2012 season came out of nowhere, and it remains to be seen whether he can replicate it. When a player goes from two interceptions per season to nine, there is reason to be skeptical of his ability to maintain that level of play. If he plays at a Pro Bowl level once again, he will be in for a huge payday this offseason, likely with another team. If he regresses back to his previous form, it is more likely he would remain a Bear.

 

Isaiah Frey

Frey could not crack the final 53 last season, but was a member of the practice squad for most of the year. Now, he beat out Kelvin Hayden, who was put on injured reserve, and he is the team’s nickelback. He has shown a knack for going after the ball in the air, with an interception against the Oakland Raiders and many more during training camp. His improvement from year one to year two has been impressive, and he is developing into a strong member of the secondary.

 

Zack Bowman

Bowman did not begin 2012 with the Bears, but once he was signed, he stuck with them for the whole season. He did not see the field much, but he did have one fumble recovery for a touchdown. He has operated has the team’s fourth cornerback during training camp and preseason and has looked serviceable. He is not spectacular, but he gets the job done. He also contributes on special teams, so his presence is felt, one way or another. The Bears feel comfortable with him stepping in if something were to happen to one of the starters.

 

Sherrick McManis

McManis was acquired right before the 2012 regular season in a trade that sent Tyler Clutts to the Houston Texans. He saw very few, if any, defensive snaps, with the vast majority of his contributions coming on special teams. He has been a three-phase special teams player during the preseason, operating as a gunner on punts. He has also done some kick returning in his career, but the Bears have yet to call on him in that facet.

 

2013 Preview:

Tillman and Jennings are both question marks for the 2013 season. It is unlikely that they match their 2012 numbers, but both have looked good during the preseason. They probably won’t both make the Pro Bowl this year, but they should still be great. The Bears’ defense relies on their play quite a bit, and their performance will be crucial to the team’s success. Frey may start to make a name for himself as opposing quarterbacks throw away from the two turnover machines and towards him, while Bowman and McManis continue their special teams excellence.

 

Safety (4)

2012 Position Overview:

Both Chris Conte and Major Wright showed tremendous improvement from their 2011 seasons, and they proved to be a formidable safety duo. Wright had four interceptions and 52 tackles, while Conte had two interception and 51 tackles. Backup Craig Steltz rarely saw the field, but had a strong season on special teams.

 

Chris Conte

Conte improved quite a bit from 2011 to 2012, becoming a full-time starter. He only came up with two interceptions, but he was much better in coverage. Where he struggles the most is stopping the run, and that is something the Bears will need him to improve on. Only 24 years old, Conte is still developing, and he looks like a young and upcoming safety in the league.

 

Major Wright

Wright and Conte seem to have followed the same path, with Wright being one step ahead because he has been in the league one more year. Entering 2012, Wright was where Conte is. Now Wright is a solid starting safety and is looking to take his game to the next level. He has improved his coverage ability and all-around play tremendously since he was a rookie, and as he continues to develop, he could play at a near Pro Bowl level. Wright is becoming a play-maker, and opposing quarterbacks may need to learn to watch out for him in the near future.

 

Craig Steltz

Steltz has been a quality backup for the Bears for the last five seasons, and 2013 should be no different. When they need him to start due to injuries, he is by no means fantastic, but he is good enough. He also is a big part of the special teams, as a four-phase player. He is an asset for this Bears team that many people do not realize.

 

Anthony Walters

Walters earned a spot on the 53 in 2012 due to a Brandon Hardin injury. This preseason, Hardin struggled once again, and Walters continued to play well, earning a spot back with the team. He too is a four-phase special teamer who can also cover fairly well defensively. Only 24, Walters is a nice developing young safety that can help take the sting away from a third-round bust in Hardin.

 

2013 Preview:

Both Conte and Wright should improve from their 2012 seasons. If he can stay healthy once again, Wright may improve upon his four interception season and be a legitimate Pro Bowl contender. Conte too has the ability to pull in more interceptions. If they both continue to get better, they could be one of the most formidable duos in the league.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker

2012 Position Overview:

Gould struggled a bit during the season, down to 84-percent on field goals. A calf injury kept him out of the Bears’ final three games, so the team signed Olindo Mare to take his place. He struggled too, connecting on only 75-percent of his field goals.

 

Robbie Gould

Fully healthy, Gould should return to his previous success. He has voiced his displeasure with general manager Phil Emery’s handling of contract extensions, but due to the fact that he’s in a contract year, it should not affect his play. He has shown some increased power as of late, connecting on all of his field goals from 50-plus yards over the last two seasons.

 

2013 Preview:

Gould will most likely kick above 85-percent once again, reestablishing himself as one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. The Bears need him to maintain his solid form to put points on the board when the offense stalls. He will likely see more work early on in the season as the offense faces growing pains, but the Bears are hoping they will use him for mostly extra points instead of field goals.

 

Punter

2012 Position Overview:

Many Bears fans were unsatisfied with Podlesh’s 42 yards per punt average, but that is only slightly less than his career average. Even so, his average ranked among the bottom five in the league in 2012.

 

Adam Podlesh

Podlesh’s two season in Chicago have been his two highest seasons in total amounts of punts due to the team’s offensive struggles. The Bears are hoping that they have to punt significantly less in 2013. Podlesh is not the greatest punter, but he is consistent, and that is all the Bears need from him.

 

2013 Preview:

A new offense should mean less need for the punter, so his punt numbers should come down. Given the added pressure on him this offseason, he should be able to get his yards per punt numbers up a little this season, but in the grand scheme of things, his impact is minimal, either way.

 

Long Snapper

2012 Position Overview:

Patrick Mannelly had another strong season of long snapping. There is not much else to say about it. He is still very good, even at age 38.

 

Patrick Mannelly

The longest tenured Chicago Bear, Mannelly suffered a cracked rib during the preseason. He should be ready to go week one. Even at his advanced age, he still one of the first non-gunners to the returner on punts.

 

2013 Preview:

There is not anything exciting about long snapping, but Mannelly is darn good at it. He is expected to keep doing his thing at a high level, and there is no reason to doubt him, as long as he stays healthy.

 

Kick/Punt Returner

2012 Position Overview:

Devin Hester struggled immensely, and he looked like a different person out there. He had no confidence and just looked lost at times. He was still able to average 26 yards per kickoff return, with most of his struggles coming on punts. His backup, Eric Weems, did not fare much better, averaging only 17.8 yards per kickoff return. For the first time in many years, the Bears special teams struggled.

 

Devin Hester

No longer taking offensive snaps, Hester is only being used as a kick returner in an effort to regain his focus. With a new special teams coordinator in Joe DeCamillis, Hester gets a fresh start, and the Bears are hoping he can find his form of years past. If not, this will likely be his last season in Chicago.

 

2013 Preview:

All it will take is one big return and Hester will get hot. If he does not have a touchdown by the team’s week eight bye, he probably is not going to get one all season. The Detroit Lions, week four, allowed two kickoff and two punt returns for touchdowns last season, while the New Orleans Saints, week five, were among the worst in the league in yards per return allowed on both punts and kickoffs. Those games should be his best opportunities.

Post By Lorin Cox (35 Posts)

Lorin Cox is a diehard Bears fan who writes for both Pro Football Central and BearsDraftOnTap.com. He hopes you enjoy his work as much as he does, and he appreciates any feedback on of his writing. You can contact Lorin on twitter at @LorinJCox or via email at wakacha1337@gmail.com.

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