Chicago Bears have lots of D-Line options in NFL draft

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward raised his NFL stock with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl.

    Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward raised his NFL stock with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 4/26/2016 12:50 PM

The Bears have taken two huge steps toward building the kind of disruptive line that coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio desire in their base 3-4 defense.

Last year's second-round pick, 6-foot-4, 322-pound nose tackle Eddie Goldman, was the Bears' best defensive lineman. As a 21-year-old rookie, he led the linemen with 39 tackles and 4 ½ sacks.

 

A month ago the Bears added 6-foot-5, 324-pound, 26-year-old Akiem Hicks in free agency, and he will help a run defense that finished in the bottom third of the NFL last season.

Two out of three isn't bad, but adding a third cornerstone would provide a solid foundation for years to come. And this is a great year to go shopping for a big difference-making defensive lineman.

As many as a dozen D-linemen could go in the first 50 picks and one of them is expected to go to the Bears, who pick 11th and 41st.

That's when they'd have to address D-line if they hope to get a player who will help stop the run and provide pass-rush pressure. There also are players who will be available later who could compete for a starting job and/or provide depth behind holdovers Ego Ferguson, Mitch Unrein, Will Sutton and Cornelius Washington.

Jihad Ward was an academic non-qualfier who spent two years in junior college before arriving at Illinois, and he was an under-the-radar prospect until recently. His performance at the Senior Bowl elevated the stock of the 6-foot-5, 297-pound Ward, who was a wide receiver and safety in high school but outgrew those positions.

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He credits his improvement and his performance at the Senior Bowl to Illini defensive line coach Mike Phair, who was an assistant on Lovie Smith's Bears staff from 2011-13.

"Coach Phair said, 'Just go in there and do what you know,' " Ward said. "I've been taught a lot by that man. Thank God he's in my corner."

Ward has retained the athleticism he had as a wideout and still has room to grow into what is an already NFL-sized frame. His best football should be in the future, and he should be able to play almost anywhere along 30 or 40 fronts.

Northwestern's Dean Lowry, who attended the NFL draft festivities last year at Grant Park, should hear his name called sometime in the late rounds in this week's draft.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It was pretty cool," the Rockford native said. "I went last year as a fan, just to walk around. It was a great venue."

Lowry played on back-to-back, 14-0 state championship teams at Rockford's Boylan Central Catholic High School. Like Illinois' Ward, he did a lot of growing from then until now, bulking up from 240 pounds to 296. At 6-foot-6, he has room to grow.

In addition to 12 ½ career sacks, Lowry batted down 17 passes over the past three seasons. He lacks some athleticism, but his effort is obvious on tape, along with toughness and tenacity. None of that desirable edgy stuff is apparent when talking to Lowry, but he is a changed person when he takes the field.

"I turn the switch on," he said. "I'm more of a reserved, mellow guy off the field. On game day, I try to be an animal. It's about your mentality and being a high-motor guy, and that's what I try to be on game day."

• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere.

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