During this year’s Scouting Combine, Bears GM Ryan Pace said that his early assessment of the roster was that the Bears had two players capable of anchoring the middle of the coming 3-4 defense. Ego Ferguson was a stout first-year player, and Jeremiah Ratliff had earned trips to Pro Bowls as a nose tackle.
In keeping with the fluid nature of so many positions, particularly on defense, things have changed. And are changing. It has to do with considerably more than just what transpired in last weekend’s draft.
Most immediately, the Bears used a second-round pick (39th overall) to add Florida State’s Eddie Goldman, a prototypical nose tackle and the biggest player on the Bears’ roster at 335 pounds. Goldman will not be handed the starting job day one but the defensive surprise of the offseason will be if Goldman is not the Week 1 starter.
He fits precisely the template of coach John Fox for a nose tackle in base 3-4.
“You’re good on defense when you’re good up the middle,” Fox said. “I think we’ve got some good candidates there… a block-eater inside that’s tough and doesn’t get knocked off the ball.”
More interesting, however, is what now becomes of Ferguson and Ratliff. Because neither quite fits the classic mold of 3-4 “block-eater,” for slightly different reasons.
Ratliff, who did not attend last week’s voluntary minicamp sessions, is not expected to wind up at nose tackle after all. He can play the position. But because of his age (34 in August), size (305) and standing as the best pass rusher among the current defensive linemen, Ratliff projects to be at end where his rush skills can be put to maximum use, rather than hunkering down inside with a primary assignment of run stuffing.
Meanwhile, Ferguson has gone from a 4-3 backup nose tackle in 2014 to a 3-4 nose this year, and also has turned up at defensive end as well in the “Where’s Waldo?” shuffling of nearly every defensive lineman into nearly every defensive position. End or tackle?
“Just call me a ‘D-lineman,” Ferguson said, laughing. “That’s the best way.”
Last year’s Bears coaches told Ferguson before he was drafted that one plan was to use him in part as a “two-technique,” playing head up on a guard instead of shaded to a gap. Ferguson started no games in 2014 as Stephen Paea had a breakout year that earned him a multi-year deal with the Washington Redskins.
But Ferguson has been the object of in-depth discussions and scenarios this offseason.
“We’ve talked about [Ferguson] a lot,” Pace said after the draft. “We project him as really nose and end. He can be both for us. So we don’t have him set at one position right now. He can be a nose or an end. He has position flexibility there, too.”
What becomes significant with Ferguson is his weight loss, to the point of being sub-300 pounds — not the stuff of nose tackles. It is weight loss by design.
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“I feel like this fits me,” Ferguson said. “I lost about 15 pounds, to 298-299, just trying to get a little more pass rushing and being able to run around a little more. I think 295-300 will be about right.
“They want you to be strong and explosive, not just big.”
The combination of Goldman, flanked by Jarvis Jenkins and Ray McDonald in 3-4 base, with a lighter-quicker Ferguson jumping in with Ratliff on sub packages becomes an intriguing prospect in an overall scheme makeover.
“As far as body types, styles, all those things, everybody comes in different shapes and sizes,” Fox said. “And we’ll get a chance to evaluate it.”