This past weekend was my last “free” weekend for the foreseeable future.  With no definite plans on the calendar, it meant that I found myself spending a good bit of time in the car running errands and in turn listening to sports talk radio.  With spring training in full swing and the NCAA bracket assignments still up in the air the conversation topic du jour was that of the completion of the first week of NFL free agency – and specifically the Bears actions (or lack there of depending on the speaker).

As I listened to the various hosts and callers chime in with their two cents about how the Bears do or do not have the right pieces to transition to a 3-4 defense or stay with a more traditional 4-3 front I began questioning whether these people actually listen to the words that are said at press conferences.  While everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion of things, what boggled my mind is that since the day the season ended Bears General Manager Phil Emery has been telling everyone that will listen that the intention this off season is to get away from traditional norms and evolve into a hybrid defense that creates confusion for the offense at the line of scrimmage.  Essentially what Emery has been saying is that for the Bears at least, there is no more base defense.  The front office has gone out of their way to distance themselves from the idea of being defined as a “Tampa-2” team or having any similar label attached to them.

Much as Bears fans were introduced to new concepts last year on offense (namely gaining yardage and scoring points) I think this season we’re in for a similar experience on the other side of the ball.  While I don’t anticipate the Bears defense vaulting to #2 in the league as the offense did last fall, I think we’ll see a regular blend of fronts and coverages that we’ve only been exposed to from the visiting sidelines in the eight games at Soldier Field each year.

As best I can tell, the Bears will look to emulate some degree of the champion Seattle Seahawks defense in looking for versatile athletes, but more so I think their ideal is to be able to play like many teams did versus those Peyton Manning led Colts teams from 2005-2010 where the defenders would mill about at the line of scrimmage in no particular formation in order to hide their coverage until the snap of the ball.  Read this excellent piece by Robert Mays at Grantland.com about the Bears big ticket free agent Lamarr Houston.  There are only so many guys in the league who can line up as an outside linebacker on one play and defensive tackle on the next.  It just so happens that the Bears appear to be collecting them.  Between Houston, Shea McClellin, the recently re-signed Israel Idonije, Willie Young, Cheta Ozougwu, Austen Lane, Cornelius Washington and David Bass – and that’s not counting anyone they draft in May – the Bears are loading up on guys who can stand up and drop into coverage or put their hand in the dirt and rush the passer on any given play.  While none of them appear to be pass rushing extraordinaires – a fair criticism of many a talking head – the key is the degree of versatility any given lineup can offer.  Depending on the personnel on the field there’s a very realistic chance that more often than not within the front seven up to five of them have the ability to drop into coverage and all seven could be coming to pressure the quarterback from a variety of angles.

What I think will be most telling as far as establishing anything close to a base defense this year will be reflected in how the Bears invest their first round draft pick in May (14th overall).  I’ve yet to accurately predict a first round pick in the Emery regime to date, however I would be shocked if this time around the pick is not invested in the defensive line.  Brad Biggs at the Tribune hit it on the head in his column on Sunday implying that the choice will come down to Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald – a quick reaction 3-technique defensive tackle (think Tommie Harris or Henry Melton) – or a road blocking anchor like Louis Nix from Notre Dame (think 2014 Vince Wilfork).  If the Bears find their next three technique built on speed then it means they’ll lean more towards a traditional 4-3 look as there won’t have that paperweight to insert into the middle of a 3-4 alignment.  If they go with Nix with the 14th pick instead it would indicate that the 3-4 is going to be a much bigger part of the equation than any of us realize.  With a pick of a 340 lb immovable object such as Nix the Bears could still align in a 4-3 using the recently re-signed Jeremiah Ratliff or Nate Collins at the under tackle position.

Assuming additional draft picks are spent at safety (in an ideal world Calvin Pryor from Louisville falls to the Bears in the second round but more realistically watch for Deone Bucannon from Washington St) and cornerback (again, the dream scenario is that Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert falls to the middle of the second round) then the Bears will have made significant investments at all three levels of the defense using three of their last four first and second round selections.  This is the way defenses are rebuilt.

With it only being March and not knowing all of the final pieces in play, I can’t promise what the Bears defense will look like and what kind of success they’ll find next season.  What I can tell you however is that anyone who thinks they know all those answers at this point is just guessing as well.  I think we need to take Emery and his staff at their word and expect the unexpected heading into next year.  Perhaps creating confusion on the AM airwaves is just the first phase of the unpredictability that they’ve aspired to since January.