By Dan Wiederer, Tribune reporter
9:02 PM CST, January 4, 2014
Expiring contracts: Charles Tillman, Henry Melton, Corey Wootton, Major Wright, D.J. Williams, James Anderson, Jeremiah Ratliff, Zack Bowman, Nate Collins, Kelvin Hayden, Craig Steltz, Landon Cohen.
Hot topic: Is Mel Tucker safe? Or isn't he?
Neither Trestman nor Emery could answer those questions Thursday, stressing they were not yet ready to endorse Tucker as their coordinator for 2014 yet not quite prepared to dismiss him either.
Trestman apparently will have the final say but wants to give Tucker's work a deeper, more thorough evaluation and not just toss him out of the plans in a knee-jerk reaction after the breakdowns that contributed to last Sunday's season-ending loss to the Packers.
"It's time to put the emotions aside," Trestman said.
Internally at Halas Hall, a strong belief remains that Tucker is a smart strategist, an enthusiastic leader and a capable teacher. And that fosters confidence that he can have success with a relatively healthy defense.
Yet the Bears aren't ignoring this season's collapse — the breakdowns in big moments, the lack of big plays, the 1,563 rushing yards they allowed over the season's second half.
Emery took responsibility for not providing more quality depth to withstand the injury tsunami, with five opening day starters missing a combined 43 games and the Bears using 15 different starting lineup combinations. Of the 12 playoff teams, only the Patriots had opening day starters miss more than 30 with 42.
The NFC North champion Packers' defense saw six opening day starters miss 23 games with the Lions (28) and Vikings (34) behind them, all games lost mostly to injuries.
Trestman, too, requested accountability for the defensive meltdown.
"Did we do everything we could to overcome it?" he said. "That starts with me."
But with overhauls needed, a shake-up on the defensive coaching staff hasn't been ruled out. That means Tucker and several position coaches remain on watch.
Needs fixing: Well, everything really. The pass rush was ordinary at best all season with the Bears recording an NFL-low 31 sacks. The run defense was atrocious, allowing an NFL-worst 161.4 rushing yards per game, 25.6 more than the 31st-ranked Falcons.
And that old reliable calling card the Bears use to have in forcing takeaways? Well, that dried up as the season went along as well. Half of the Bears' 28 takeaways came in September and the defense recovered only one fumble over the final 12 games, an obvious step back for a group that created an NFL-best 44 takeaways in 2012.
Not a single position — defensive tackle, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback or safety — has much stability at present. Six opening-day starters have contracts that expire in March.
There are deeper discussions ongoing about a potential scheme shift.
"Everything's on the table," Trestman said.
Reasons for hope: For the first time in ages, there's little to be optimistic about. That tends to happen when you give up more yards than any other unit in franchise history.
But here's the good news: the Bears currently have eight picks lined up for May's draft. And with no huge holes on offense, Emery can zero in on refurbishing his defense, planning to get younger quickly while looking to target fast, athletic playmakers who can cause disruption.
This will be a defining offseason for the GM. In the last two drafts, Emery's track record on defensive players doesn't exactly breed confidence. He admitted Thursday that in a quest to secure the best potential playmakers, he has fallen into a trap of converting guys into roles they don't fit.
Remember Brandon Hardin, a third-round pick in 2012? He was a cornerback coming out of Oregon State who lost his final college season to a shoulder injury. Emery tried to convert him into a safety but he suffered a neck injury in preseason and was placed on injured reserve. He was cut late last preseason with a broken scapula, depleting the Bears of needed depth and competition at safety.
Admitted Emery: "I put that young man in a bad position to succeed."
Jon Bostic? Emery said the 2013 second-rounder may be better suited as an outside linebacker than he is at middle linebacker, where he made 10 starts as a rookie.
And Shea McClellin, Emery's first pick as GM in 2012? Yep, you guessed it. Another guy who was wedged into a niche at defensive end that hasn't suited him. McClellin has only 61/2 sacks in two seasons and there's escalating discussion now of moving him to linebacker or a hybrid role.
"Shea is capable of more," Trestman said. "And it's our job and our responsibility as coaches to get that out of him."
Minimizing repeat mistakes with this year's draft class will be key if the Bears are to make strides.
One last thought: If the Bears truly are entertaining a shift to a 3-4 defense, they likely will make that decision soon, before they get too deep into their draft-planning and free agent evaluations. It often is far easier to fit players into a scheme than it is to remodel a defensive approach around a hodgepodge of players with varied skill sets.
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