As the NFL draft nears — it takes place May 8-10 — we're taking an 11-day, position-by-position look at what's out there and what the Bears need.
General manager Phil Emery can only hope the calculated gamble he took last fall in signing Jeremiah Ratliff continues to pay off. Ratliff played last season's final five games, showed flashes of his old self, then agreed to a two-year deal with the Bears less than a week before free agency began. The team also re-signed Nate Collins, who seemed to be ascending before an anterior cruciate ligament tear ended his 2013 season in Week 5. Stephen Paea, meanwhile, must return to top form after a nagging toe injury limited his effectiveness last season.
Level of draft need: HIGH Moderate Low
In the Bears' system, Emery calls the under tackle position "the engine that drives the defense." So when 2012 Pro Bowler Henry Melton departed for the Cowboys in free agency, the Bears were left with a major hole to fill, especially after experiencing pronounced defensive struggles last season after Melton's season-ending knee injury. Finding a defensive tackle in either of the first two rounds seems like a must. In the Bears' favor, a deep draft class at the position awaits.
Aaron Donald, Pitt
6-1, 285 pounds
Worth a look: Donald is a near-perfect fit for the Bears, which could leave Emery praying that the ACC's defensive player of the year is still on the board when the organization goes on the clock at No. 14. Donald's 2013 tape, with 281/2 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, tells the tale of a disruptive interior force who provides a stellar pass rushing-run stuffing package. Donald later delivered a standout week at the Senior Bowl and then went to the NFL scouting combine and ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash while bench pressing 225 pounds 35 times (No. 1 in both tests among defensive tackles).
Stay away: Those fixated on prototypical size will question whether Donald's size will limit him in the NFL, particularly against double teams. And there may be a risk of reducing his effectiveness if he tries to bulk up.
Ra'shede Hageman, Minnesota
6-6, 310 pounds
Worth a look: Hageman is a massive and athletic force who has only scratched the surface of his potential. He arrived in college as a tight end, converted into a defensive lineman and has embraced the learning process. He's capable of delivering the splash play and has enough in his skill set to project as either an NFL under tackle or an end.
Stay away: His development is still very much a work in progress with refinement needed in his hand placement and ability to play with sound pad level. He also will need to acquire a more diversified set of pass rush moves.
Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
6-2, 299 pounds
Worth a look: Jernigan once was widely projected as a top 15 pick. But now, according to ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, it's possible the Florida State standout could fall into the early part of Round 2. If that happens, the Bears could face a temptation to move up from No. 51 to snag him. At his best, Jernigan uses his strength and footwork to shed blocks with a knack for being disruptive inside.
Stay away: He can be slow off the ball and may not have NFL-level pass rush ability. There are also questions on whether Jernigan would fit better in a 3-4 system or a 4-3.
Dominique Easley, Florida
6-2, 288 pounds
Worth a look: When healthy, Easley has proven himself as a high-motor force with an ability to penetrate. He has a reputation as a tireless worker who understands leverage and can be explosive off the snap. He projects as a Day 2 pick, the kind of under tackle the Bears would want.
Stay away: Easley tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee as a sophomore in 2011, then saw his senior season end when he tore the ACL in his right knee. That injury history will be a major concern.
Shamar Stephen, Connecticut
6-5, 309 pounds
Worth a look: Stephen developed in 2011, 2012 and into the early parts of 2013 under then-UConn head coach Paul Pasqualoni, who's now the Bears' defensive line coach. Stephen was a team captain as a senior and contributed 60 tackles as a run-stuffing presence. Pasqualoni would know as well as anybody just how much Stephen could bring if scooped up as a late-round find.
Stay away: Stephen fits at nose tackle and doesn't offer much as a pass rusher. He wasn't productive consistently enough throughout his college career.
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