Continuing with the goals for training camp series we come to the defense and what must be accomplished during the transition from Lovie Smith to Mel Tucker. There's a lot of stuff that's supposed to stay relatively close to what Smith did on defense. Jon Hoke and Mike Phair are two key holdovers from Lovie Smith's staff so they'll be here to help smooth the transition and keep as much of the defensive schemes and terminology as familiar as possible.
Phil Emery made it pretty clear he wanted to keep Rod Marinelli on as defensive coordinator, which to some extent means that Emery may have kept Lovie on as head coach had he not been so incompetent at hiring offensive coordinators. When you see how the defense has played in this scheme since 2004 you understand why Emery wants as little change on defense as possible.
Tucker however is going to get as much out of the Bears' versatility as he possibly can however. Shea McClellin is the cornerstone and the future of the defense, if he wasn't he would have been taken with the 19th overall pick in 2012. The Bears are going to cater to McClellin's strengths and Tucker has already shown a willingness to do that in mini-camp and OTAs.
This is also the first year the Bears will be without future hall of fame linebacker Brian Urlacher, arguably the greatest linebacker of the last decade. What impact will the loss of Urlacher have on the defense is a major question the Bears will have to answer. One thing is clear, when Urlacher has missed time with injury the Bears have a losing record without their captain of the defense.
Perhaps the key to the defense lies with the front four and the continued development of the defensive tackles, Stephen Paea and Henry Melton. Paea will be entering his third year with the Bears and should put forth the best season of his career to date. Typically it takes players up to the third year for them to start playing at their best levels to get to the point where they achieve their peak performance level. For Paea that should be this year especially in terms of being the teams primary run stopper. Paea should be causing havoc in the middle, clogging up run games and making teams want to avoid running up the middle whether it's straight at the Bears or trying any inside zone runs.
What more can Henry Melton do? Perhaps more consistency as a pass rusher more of a force in the run game but really he plays at such a high level right now there's not a whole lot more he needs to do. The question then should be how much better can Melton get, or perhaps will there be a drop off in production with the absence of Rod Marinelli coaching him up?
Elsewhere on defense can Sedrick Ellis come in, in shape and realize at least some of the potential he showed in college at USC. The Bears need Ellis to be an integral part of the DT rotation because so often the Bears rotate their players to keep them fresh. We need to see that explosive first step and that power that disappeared when Ellis was asked to put on weight and play in more of a two-gap role.
All eyes will be on Shea McClellin, perhaps the most scrutinized player on the roster heading into the 2013 season. McClellin should already be locked in as a starter, but instead he could be in a battle for the third/fourth DE spot. Perhaps no player needs to start to take a bigger step forward than the 2012 first round draft choice.
Can Corey Wootton take it to another level? Wootton has shown up in camp year after year and made everyone take notice. In 2011 however a knee injury slowed any signs of progress, last year however Wootton secured the number three DE job and then took over as the starter opposite Julius Peppers. Now, seemingly entrenched as the starter can Wootton take his game to a new level? Can he provide consistent pressure opposite Peppers, crack that double-digit sack mark and be just as solid against the run as Israel Idonije was?
Two players I'm most interested to see in camp step up their games are second year draftees CB Isaiah Frey and safety Brandon Hardin. Frey has received some praise as showing improvement from a year ago when he looked more like a deer in headlights. Having spent a year on the practice squad it's imperative for Frey to take that next step and earn a spot on the 53-man roster. Frey represents the only young CB in the secondary who might be here beyond 2013.
Perhaps no player is under more pressure to make the roster in 2013 than second year safety Brandon Hardin. A third round draft choice from a year ago Hardin hasn't played a meaningful snap of football in two years. Hardin went down with a neck injury in the pre-season games last year and missed his second straight season. Now the pressure is on for him to prove the value Emery saw in him that made him a second day draft choice. It takes more than raw athleticism to succeed in the NFL, and Hardin must now show a basic understanding of playing the safety spot.
Perhaps no position group will be under more scrutiny than the starting linebackers. Four new faces will compete for two open jobs with Jon Bostic and DJ Williams vying to step in and succeed Brian Urlacher. Let's make it clear, no one is going to match or replace #54, the question is can they avoid being a complete disaster in the middle of this defense? Bostic needs to prove he can take on blocks, and hold up at the point of attack. We know Bostic is fast enough, but is he physical enough to man the middle or is he better suited to play on the outside?
Bostic needs to push veteran DJ Williams into having the best season he's had in an NFL uniform to justify him starting. Williams is the starter for now, and he should be able to hold off the rookie, but their training camp battle should make both players much better.
Khaseem Greene, and Joe Anderson will be in for a major head to head battle for the starting SAM 'backer spot. Greene played at a very high level in college and has shown to be a very tough and physical player who makes big plays and creates turnovers. Will that in turn translate into some of the same success at the NFL level?
Overall this may be the last hurrah for the core defensive players that have made up a great defense for the better part of a decade. All three starting CBs will be free agents at the end of the season and veteran Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers may be cut for salary reasons. Add to it that only Stephen Paea is the only player in the front seven from the Jerry Angelo era on contract beyond 2015 and there is the potential for a complete change in defensive scheme.