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Opportunity to Assess for Bears Defense

Three weeks of workouts prior to mandatory minicamp could allow the Bears to better assess the state of their defensive talent at most problematic areas.

The NFL apparently disliked the term spring practices and created an even worse generic term of its own for offseason work.

Organized team activities, or OTAs, sounds more like something your kids do in P.E. or at recess on a playground, or something your boss makes you do, but starting this week the Bears embark upon the league's rite of spring.

These are nothing more than a series of three minicamps. They'll hold three days of unpadded practices over the course of three weeks, ending in mid-June with a mandatory minicamp.

The OTAs are voluntary. Wink, wink.

Teams like the Bears, so lightly regarded across the league, need to have as many of their players available for OTAs as possible, including veterans. New defensive and offensive schemes were introduced at an earlier non-mandatory veteran minicamp and a rookie minicamp, and now they begin to push more information on players.

There is only so much a team can do without pads and on the defensive side, especially, the Bears are limited: No hitting, tackling, no making contact with the quarterback, in short none of the fun stuff.

There are three glaring problems on defense they need to begin to gauge in order to decide whether to add more unsigned players, and OTAs will allow this. One situation can't really be assessed sufficiently because of the soft nature of OTAs.

1. Defensive Tackle Weakness

Justin Jones was the only defensive tackle they brought in during free agency and Micah Dew-Treadway the only college player added despite the fact they've switched to a 4-3 with defensive linemen attacking in gaps rather than occupying blockers first to let linebackers make tackles, as in their old 3-4. The lack of real single-gap defensive linemen makes you wonder if they're going to try something like Mel Tucker did in 2013-14 with his 4-3 defense, as they played a bit of a hybrid approach. 

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If that's the case, they should really consider bringing back unsigned free agent Akiem Hicks. It's likely not happening because of the cost, but this line has a problem when Jones has only 4 1/2 sacks and 12 tackles for loss with the Chargers over four years and is their best attacking player. 

Angelo Blackson and Khyiris Tonga are pure-and-simple two-gappers and not suited for an attacking one-gap approach. Tonga is in his second year after getting on the field for 23% of defensive snaps. Blackson has never played in a 4-3 with the Bears, Cardinals and Texans, although he did show a knack for making plays last year. They can use Mario Edwards Jr. in passing situations at three technique because it's what he did for them over the past two years when he wasn't drawing penalties. He was a specialist as an interior pass rusher but in his past has been cut by the Saints and Raiders after he was playing in their 4-3 systems. Their other players are undrafted or practice squad types. LaCale London has been on the field one play in two years. Auzoyah Alufohai is an undrafted player from West Georgia who got in three games for Houston in a 3-4 defense two years ago. Micah Dew-Treadway made plays as a defensive lineman at Minnesota after leaving Notre Dame but is an undrafted player. The Bears are a defense based on linemen attacking upfield and appear to have few linemen who can attack upfield. They a need to sort through these defensive line types in OTAs to find some who can attack upfield and then try to sign someone else who can help here. With no tackling and really not much physical play, it's going to be difficult to assess. It may be a situation deferred until hitting can start in training camp.

2. Slot Cornerback

This is a position of need still and a vital one in this scheme. Yet they're manning it with Tavon Young, who has had one good season as a slot with Baltimore when he wasn't injured, or Duke Shelley, who hasn't done it well the past year and a half with the Bears. There could be other possibilities like putting Jaylon Johnson inside in passing situations, playing rookie Kyler Gordon inside in passing situations or even taking a look at 2021 sixth-rounder Thomas Graham Jr. there. Either way, OTAs do provide a perfect setting for studying this situation because more seven-on-seven or one-on-one passing lets defensive backs show how they can match up with receivers. Coaches and personnel could know through this work if they need to add a potential slot cornerback who is cut or remains a free agent.

3. Linebacker Depth

In some respects they can adequately assess this problem at OTAs. Besides Roquan Smith and Nicholas Morrow, the Bears will be counting on several journeyman players to man either strong side linebacker or provide backup help at middle and weak side. Even without hitting, they can at least get an idea of their linebacker speed and this is the critical quality for all linebackers in this version of 4-3. Veterans Matthew Adams, Noah Dawkins and Joe Thomas have never made big impacts and the opportunity exists for young players like undrafted free agents Christian Albright, C.J. Avery and Jack Sanborn to show they belong. It could also mean a chance for Caleb Johnson to prove he is a better fit as a speedy off-ball linebacker in this system than he was playing in the 3-4.

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