For the first time since the 1985 season, the Bears landed two defensive linemen in the Pro Bowl as Julius Peppers and Henry Melton were selected as all-stars.
Peppers led the defense with 111/2 sacks, his most since joining the club in 2010, and Melton continued to make strides, making him a priority in free agency and a possible target for the franchise tag.
It's fair to say the Bears have had better defensive lines between 2012 and the 1985 Bears. They've certainly played the run better at different junctures. But this was a consistent area for the defense, probably a big reason why new coach Marc Trestman is retaining Mike Phair as the position coach. Phair worked under ex-defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli for two years and the goal, as we know, was to retain Marinelli in that role. So the Bears were happy with what they got from the defensive linemen and will be plotting to build on it for the 2013 season.
What the Bears do with Melton will headline significant decisions in free agency. Israel Idonije, who lost his starting job at left end to Corey Wootton with five games to go in the season, remained a consistent performer and has added value with the versatility to play inside. Nate Collins proved to be a bargain addition on a one-year contract and worked his way into the rotation at tackle to get 22.9 percent of the snaps. He will be a restricted free agent, making it easy and affordable to keep him.
There didn't seem to be much progress with Melton for a deal during the season and there is no doubt the Bears will use the franchise tag as leverage in negotiations. Maybe Melton runs into a situation similar to what running back Matt Forte encountered last summer when the best offer from the team included a guarantee ($17.1 million) that was virtually identical to the value of two franchise tag years ($17.03 million).
Idonije, 32, finds himself in the same situation he was in a year ago. He returned with a club-friendly one-year, $2.5 million contract. Idonije has expressed a desire to remain in Chicago and the only way to negotiate a bigger deal is to have another offer in hand as leverage.
Roll call: Julius Peppers (signed through 2015), Corey Wootton (signed through 2013), Henry Melton (unrestricted free agent), Stephen Paea (signed through 2014), Israel Idonije (unrestricted free agent), Shea McClellin (signed through 2015), Nate Collins (restricted free agent), Amobi Okoye (unrestricted free agent), Matt Toeaina (signed through 2013), Cheta Ozougwu (signed through 2013).
2012 season review: Many of the bright spots on the defense belonged to the line. Wootton went from being a fringe roster guy to a starter and provided real value with his production in just 54.5 percent of the defensive snaps. Peppers remained a feared pass rusher and McClellin, the first draft pick of the Phil Emery era, showed flashes. But the transformation of Melton into a complete tackle was the highlight. He went from being an ineffective defender versus the run to handling it well as he got a better grasp for the position. It's a credit to Phair and Marinelli, who truly oversaw the line's meeting room and practices.
Melton finished with six sacks, but he had a team-high 24 quarterback pressures and five tackles for a loss, tops among linemen, as well as two forced fumbles. With new coordinator Mel Tucker expected to keep many of the defensive elements in place, Melton is a key figure for 2013.
The emergence of Wootton and arrival of McClellin allowed the Bears to keep Peppers fresher, using him on only 74.5 percent of the snaps, easily his lowest figure in three years. He still commands regular double teams and is the first player opponents will scheme to control. His four fumble recoveries tied for the most in the NFL and he remains a dominant player because he has aged well without many injuries. Peppers was slowed this season with plantar fasciitis and his condition will be something to monitor moving forward.
McClellin, the 19th overall pick from Boise State, proved to be the high-motor player he was advertised as entering the draft. He has a wide range of athletic skills and that is why in the December meeting with Seattle, McClellin at one point was covering Seahawks third wide receiver Doug Baldwin 20 yards downfield. But that doesn't mean a shift to linebacker is in his future. The Bears have a more pressing need for pass rushers. The game has changed, and it's more important to have an array of pass rushers than it is run-stuffing linebackers. With some seasoning, he should be able to develop more pass-rushing ability. He certainly needs to make a bigger impact as coaches' review of game tape credited him with only seven tackles despite being on the field for 365 snaps.
Quietly, Paea had a solid season. He was not flashy, but nose tackles aren't and he had four four-tackle games and came up with 2 1/2 sacks and eight quarterback pressures as he showed the ability to collapse the pocket at times with quickness and strength.
Free agency/draft priority: This was always a need area under Lovie Smith, but he wasn't alone. Most teams make building an abundance of depth on the line a priority. It's clear the team is not going to allow Melton to leave via free agency. What's less clear is what decision will be made with Idonije. Losing him would create a sizable void, although the front office is probably expecting more from McClellin in his second season. It wouldn't hurt for an end and a tackle to be added in some form, even if it was just someone pushing for a spot in the rotation.
Change in coaching staff means: Clearly Emery was pleased with the work Phair did and now he will have an opportunity to spread his wings some with Marinelli no longer leading the position group. If Tucker runs a considerable amount of Cover-2, he still is going to need a disruptive three-technique tackle in Melton and a dominant edge rusher in Peppers to rush the quarterback with only four down linemen. This group could be one least affected by the shift at head coach.
Bottom line: The Bears have some big decisions ahead with Peppers, 33, when you look at the numbers. His base salary for 2013 jumps by $4 million to $12.9 million and his salary-cap figure increases similarly to $16.383 million. But the pro-rated bonus money remaining in his deal would make it expensive to consider playing without Peppers. That is not going to be as significant an issue in 2014 to the organization. For now, the Bears hope he remains the main cog for one of the best position groups on the roster.
Second in a series. Coming Wednesday: Running backs