With Harris gone, Bears may use first pick on D-tackle

Updated 3/1/2011 4:30 PM
  • Illinois defensive lineman Corey Liuget, here running a drill at the NFL Scouting Combine on Monday, could end up with the Bears, according to Pro Football Weekly's latest mock draft.

    Illinois defensive lineman Corey Liuget, here running a drill at the NFL Scouting Combine on Monday, could end up with the Bears, according to Pro Football Weekly's latest mock draft. Associated Press FILE

While the Bears' greatest area of need remains the offensive line, it's not written in stone that they'll take an O-lineman with their first-round pick (29th overall) on April 28.

No one should be surprised if they target the defensive line with that first choice, especially after parting ways with defensive tackle Tommie Harris on Monday.

Nose tackle Anthony Adams, a 16-game starter last year, is eligible for free agency, if and when it starts. If he's not back, the Bears are looking at a shortage of big men.

Since taking over as the Bears' draft day decision maker in 2002, general manager Jerry Angelo has used his top pick on a defensive lineman three times and drafted 14 of them in nine years.

Matt Toeaina played ahead of Harris most of last season, starting 10 games, but Harris reclaimed the starting job late in the season. Henry Melton, a fourth-round pick in 2009, is undersized at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, and he was used mostly as a situational pass rusher last year.

Marcus Harrison, a third-round pick in 2008, will have an opportunity to earn significant playing time at one or both of the tackle spots, but he has been a huge disappointment. The 6-foot-3, 312-pounder was a game day inactive 11 times last year and had just 1 tackle.

Because the current crop of draft-eligible defensive linemen is so talented and so deep, especially at end, it's possible that starting-caliber players could be available through the end of the second or third round.

"The defensive line position is very good again this year," Angelo said, "in part because (so many) underclassmen have come out at that position."

Two of the top defensive ends are juniors, two more are redshirt sophomores, and six of the top 10 defensive tackles on most draft boards are juniors.

Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije both were excellent in 2010, and fourth-round rookie Corey Wootton showed flashes, so the Bears are more likely to look for tackles than ends on defense.

Pro Football Weekly's latest mock draft has the Bears taking Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget, and they'd probably be thrilled if he were still on the board, but that's questionable. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Liuget is a similar player to Harris when he came out of Oklahoma in 2004.

Another interesting defensive tackle prospect is Oregon State's Stephen Paea, who created major buzz when he set the all-time Scouting Combine record last weekend by cranking out 49 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. Paea is freakishly strong, but he's still somewhat lacking in instincts, even though he was a three-year starter at OSU after a year at Snow Junior College in Utah.

The 6-foot-1-inch Paea played just one year of high school football after emigrating just before his 17th birthday from Tonga, where he played rugby and dreamed of becoming a professional in that sport.

"In Tonga, rugby is the No. 1 sport," Paea said. "Growing up watching the rugby stars in New Zealand and Australia, they're all Tongan. So I feel like I wanted to be a rugby star. But once I went to the United States, I wanted to change that and have the same mindset toward football."

Paea started 36 games at Oregon State, had 29 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, and he may be good enough to sneak into the first round of the draft, but he's more likely a second-rounder.

With his size and strength, Paea could play in Harris' former three-technique spot and also at nose tackle in the Bears' scheme.

• Follow Bob's Bears reports via Twitter@BobLeGere, and check out his Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com.

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