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Bears switch to 3-4 means changing faces, roles on DL

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Bears switch to 3-4 means changing faces, roles on DL

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Who’s in: Ego Ferguson, Jarvis Jenkins, Ray McDonald, Jeremiah Ratliff

Where do they fit: Will Sutton

The Bears invested two of their top three 2014 draft choices in defensive linemen. One – Ego Ferguson, second round – already has been projected at nose tackle, rotating with veteran Jeremiah Ratliff, to the point where the Bears do not have that position as a major need.

The other – Will Sutton, third round – is less secure and will be squeezed in the new defense. He was drafted for his pass-rush ability, a gap-shooting tackle, and is not naturally a big, physical presence on the scale of the other linemen in the competition mix to be part of the “3” in 3-4. Head coach John Fox has noted that the current nature of the game dictates extensive use of nickel personnel, and Sutton’s niche may lie in a rush alternative to Jenkins and McDonald, who have not been sack threats.

[MORE BEARS: Bears inside linebacker jobs in short supply]

Sutton started five games as a rookie but failed to dominate. He is stretching to be 6-feet, Jenkins is 6-4 and McDonald 6-3, and GM Ryan Pace stressed “length” in his bill of particulars for front seven.

“One of the most important traits is length,” Pace said. “Pernell [McPhee] has got incredible length. A lot of these guys got length. That aids you in your pass rush, it aids you in shedding blocks and gaining separation, so that’s something with pass rushers, defensive linemen and also corners, length is something we really pay attention to.”

The Bears targeted Jenkins and McDonald to muscle up the outside areas of their 3-4, getting players possessed of the size and experience to operate in a two-gap system based heavily on linebacker movement. Sutton has played as big as 320 pounds in college but was ineffective.

And while the NFL may be a passing league, it really only becomes that against defenses who can stop the run, regardless of alignment.

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“A lot of times, you know, people you take that maybe aren’t the big splash when you take them become the big splash when you start playing,” Fox said.

“It’s hard [to project] because the Chicago Bears defense was a 4-3 defense a year ago. Watched these guys, every play they played on tape and now trying to project them into a 3-4 not having ever coached them on the field before…it’s really a lot of wait-and-see. There are guys we saw, they have strengths and weaknesses in our book but until you are in those meeting rooms with them eight hours a day and watching them perform either in the weight room or on the grass.

“I think the good news is sometimes when you come in new there is new light. So guys don’t have preconceived ideas on them. You start from scratch and that is the exciting thing about coming in new somewhere both as players and as coaches.”

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

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Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.