INDIANAPOLIS -- In six of Jerry Angelo's last nine drafts as the Bears' general manager, he used at least one of his top two picks on a defensive lineman.
Phil Emery has replaced Angelo as general manager, but the Bears could again target the D-line early, even though coach Lovie Smith considers that position to be a team strength.
"I like some of the things we were able to do on our defensive line," Smith said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "(But) do we need to do a better job with it? Yes. I think those guys will say that, and we're saying it because we are capable of doing more."
In the Bears' defensive scheme, a heavy emphasis always will be placed on getting most of their pass rush from the front four without relying on help from the back seven.
Last season right end Julius Peppers had 11 sacks despite battling frequent double-teams. But 3-technique tackle Henry Melton (7 sacks) was the only other Bear who had more than the 5 sacks by left end Israel Idonije, who is an unrestricted free agent.
This year's draft crop of defensive linemen could help, since it's ranked well above average, partly because Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus renounced his final season of eligibility after leading the nation with 16 sacks and 9 forced fumbles.
The Bears probably would love to get a chance to take him with the 18th pick in the second round, but considering the high value the NFL places on getting to the quarterback, Mercilus might be gone by then.
When he was asked at the combine which teams had shown interest in him, he named the Bears first.
Before he becomes a high draft pick, however, Mercilus must overcome the "one-year wonder" label.
He literally came out of nowhere last season. Before his breakout season, the 6-foot-3, 260-pounder's college career consisted of two starts and 2 sacks in two seasons.
"I was still learning the game," Mercilus said. "I was still young. I was still a raw talent. I showed signs of life, showed flashes in games at times, and I just was finally able to put it all together."
Physically, Mercilus says he worked harder before the 2011 season than he ever had before, but a gruesome accident also had much to do with his increased focus.
Just days before the Illini's spring game, Mercilus lost the tip of his left index finger when it was smashed under 405 pounds as he came to the aid of a teammate who was struggling with a lift.
"The finger was just sitting there (on an iron rack), just chilling there," as blood gushed from the severed digit, Mercilus told NFL.com before the combine. "I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm actually looking at the inside of my body right now. I'm looking at my bone.' "
Several weeks later, when he finally returned after skin-graft surgery, it was with the attitude that, "At any given moment, anything (can happen)."
Although he has a season of eligibility remaining, Mercilus said it's time for him to repay his parents, both Haitian immigrants.
"They broke their backs throughout the years just to put food on the table for me, my brother and my sister," he said. "They instilled those values in us, just to work hard, never give up at anything in life and just keep pushing forward and go for great things. It definitely happened (for me).
"This has been a passion all my life to play at the next level. But it also is a way to help my family financially, to provide them with a life that they deserve because they've worked so hard for me all their life.
"Now it's my turn to take care of them. I didn't come from a background where I had money just lying out there that I could use."
That's all about to change.
•Follow Bob's Bears reports via Twitter @BobLeGere and check out our Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com.