COMMENTARY | Fresh off of missing the playoffs for the fifth time in their last six seasons, the Chicago Bears find themselves at a crucial point. While their deficiencies on the offensive line have been well documented, Chicago finds itself at an organizational crossroads. Does first-year head coach Marc Trestman press for more weapons on offense? Or does second-year general manager Phil Emery reload an aging defense?
With the 2013 NFL Draft right around the corner, here are the five players the Bears should keep an eye on should these players still be on the board at 20, when Chicago goes on the clock.
The Alabama RT is a 6-foot-5, 355-pound back-to-back national champion. In the 2013 BCS title game, D.J. Fluker was a key link at right tackle as the Tide rolled up 265 rushing yards against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame's defense came into the title bout allowing just 92 yards per game on the ground. Alabama's offensive line dominated Notre Dame's defense, paving the way for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon each to rush for over 100 yards and a touchdown. The Irish had allowed just two 100-yard rushers and two rushing scores during their undefeated season.
In 2012, Bears QB Jay Cutler was sacked 38 times. Meanwhile, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron was sacked just 13 times in 2011 and a scant 22 times last season. Clearly, D.J. Fluker and his band of brothers know how to keep a QB upright, and that's something Chicago sorely needs.
As I previously documented, former Bears GM Jerry Angelo made some terrible draft-day decisions. The decision to trade TE Greg Olsen solely because he didn't fit into Mike Martz's scheme is just one of endless head-scratchers. Olsen was dealt to Carolina before the 2011 season. In his two campaigns with the Panthers, he has 114 catches for 1,383 yards and 10 touchdowns. Bears tight ends during that span? Fifty catches. A total of 513 yards. Seven scores. Chicago needs a tight end and Stanford's Zach Ertz is the best one in the draft.
Taking nothing away from Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, Ertz is the best player available at tight end. The Stanford playmaker caught 69 passes for 898 yards and six scores, averaging 13 yards a catch in the process. The 2012 All-American had 61 receiving yards on just three catches in the Cardinal's 20-14 win over Wisconsin in the 2013 Rose Bowl. Ertz was a key cog this season at Stanford, helping to lead them to the Pac-12 championship, leading the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
Did I mention, he did all of this after Andrew Luck left for the NFL?
While I believe Ertz to be the best tight end in this year's draft, Tyler Eifert is no slouch. The 2012 Mackey Award winner caught 50 passes for 685 yards and four touchdowns in Notre Dame's wide-open passing attack. Eifert led the Fighting Irish in receptions and yards and tied for the team lead in touchdown catches despite inconsistent play from QB Everett Golson, whom head coach Brian Kelly benched five times during the regular season.
Eifert caught six passes for 61 yards in Notre Dame's BCS title game loss to Alabama. The Fighting Irish pass catcher stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 251 pounds and has more than enough quickness to hold his own against NFL linebackers trying to cover him.
Oh, and when it comes to first-round mock drafts, Scouts, Inc. rates him six spots ahead of Zach Ertz.
If you're convinced that receiver Alshon Jeffrey -- who missed six games with injuries -- is the long-term answer to compliment All-Pro wideout Brandon Marshall, feel free to skip this section. If you're interested in a man who caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns, keep reading.
Like it or not, the NFL has become a passing league. The number of passing plays called is increasing, while the number of runs has gone down, according to Victory Formation. Going back 20 years to 1992, the MVP award has gone to a QB 16 times. These signal-callers need solid receiver corps in order to pile up the gaudy numbers they accumulate. New England's Tom Brady has had Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Denver's Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne during his run with the Indianapolis Colts. Joe Montana had Jerry Rice and John Taylor. Jay Cutler has Brandon Marshall and absolutely no one else, but that could change with the selection of West Virginia's Tavon Austin.
The speedy Mountaineer not only piled up the receiving yards, he also ran the ball 72 times for 643 yards and three scores, averaging 8.9 yards per carry. This is a wide receiver we're talking about. Austin ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, a split hair slower than the 4.39 Carolina's little big man, Steve Smith, ran it back in 2001.
Waiting for Marshall to get open because no other targets were available, Jay Cutler took unnecessary sacks. With a dynamic speedster like Austin stretching the field, Bears fans finally will get to witness the promise Cutler brought with him when he was acquired from Denver in 2009.
Austin's 813 kick return yards and 165 on punt returns led WVU in both categories. If the Bears don't retain Devin Hester, wouldn't it make sense to draft a dynamic replacement?
The Florida St. defensive end was an anchor on a squad that gave up just 254 yards per game, second in the nation to BCS champ Alabama. I put him on this list because the Bears need more of a pass rush. Don't let the numbers fool you; despite finishing fifth in the NFL in yards per game allowed with 315.6, Chicago's defense faltered down the stretch, sometimes in critical moments.
In a Week 13 loss at home to Seattle, the Bears allowed rookie QB Russell Wilson to pass for 293 yards and two touchdowns and rush nine times for 71 yards, picking up key first downs to keep drives alive. The Seahawks racked up 459 yards of total offense, dropping the Bears to 8-4 on the year and starting them on a three-game losing streak which, effectively, cost Chicago a playoff berth. In Week 15, the visiting Packers gashed the Bears for 391 yards in a 21-13, division-clinching win for Green Bay.
Bjoern Werner, a 2012 All-American for the ACC champs, finished the year with 13.5 sacks. In the 2013 Orange Bowl, FSU held Jordan Lynch and the high-powered NIU offense -- averaging 489 yards per game entering the contest -- to just 259 total yards. The Huskies managed just 140 in the first half and went 3-and-out in six of their eight drives in the first 30 minutes of the game.
Werner ran a 4.71 in the 40, close to the 4.68 Julius Peppers posted back in 2002. This season, 'Pep' finished with a respectable 11.5 sacks; combine his total with Werner's and you have 25 sacks from your starting defensive ends. New Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker would thank his lucky stars if Emery provided him with such weaponry on the defensive side of the football.
Shutdown Corner has Werner going 19th overall to the Giants, but I don't see it happening that way. In addition to finding another viable target for QB Eli Manning, New York has to pay restricted free agent WR Victor Cruz some serious money. Werner should be available to the Bears at 20, and Chicago would be wise to take him.
Of course, none of us have any idea how any of this is going to turn out. So be sure to tune in to the draft April 25 and see how your team fares. Personally, I'm like Bart Scott -- can't wait for the draft to get here.
Doc Hopkins has followed Chicago sports for decades. He has worked in sports media over 10 years and been published in the Chicago Tribune. Find him on Twitter @SupermanHopkins or leave him a comment below.