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Football / Sports

It's no surprise defense on Bears' minds

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL scouting combine began Thursday with Bears coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery taking turns at the Lucas Oil Stadium podium to address their offseason plans. Not surprisingly, they both spoke with urgency, asserting that repairing and reinventing their slipshod defense is the top priority.

"The most important part of this offseason is rebuilding our defense to a stature that's expected of us at Halas Hall," Trestman said.

So what's next?

The NFL free-agent market will open March 11. The draft is eight weeks beyond that. As the Bears make their plans, here are four issues that surfaced Thursday that are worth watching.

Defensive plan

What's the story? This much we can say of the work in progress: The 2014 Bears will retain a 4-3 system with a one-gap front. So for those holding out hope of restructuring to a 3-4 scheme, it's time to turn the page.

But even with the 4-3 intact, Trestman and Emery are vowing to install a system that has flexibility, one that features a variety of alignments and can maximize players' skills.

As for what it ultimately will look like, the catchphrase right now is "It's a process."

Plus, it's so early in that process that Trestman isn't interested in locking into a strategy without having a clearer picture of his personnel.

The Bears' foray into free agency next month will play a big part in the early reshaping of the depth chart. From there, coaches should be better prepared to evaluate how the pieces they have will work in conjunction with the draft in May.

On Thursday, Trestman again stressed he has confidence in coordinator Mel Tucker's knowledge, teaching ability and leadership. So the next order of business is turning Tucker loose to reconfigure his defense in a way that will make it more unpredictable and disruptive.

What Trestman said: "It's wide open this year and everything's on the table. ... We're looking at the existing scheme and putting a system together to accommodate the players we'll have. But we're not going to know who those players are for quite some time, so to lock ourselves in (now wouldn't be efficient)."

Peppers' time short?

Storyline: Defensive end Julius Peppers is one of several big-name veterans who could be on the way out. Joining him on that list are Charles Tillman and Devin Hester. If you read between the lines of the messages Trestman and Emery have delivered, it would not be a shock if none of those three were back next season.

Peppers' contract includes a roughly $18.2 million salary-cap hit for 2014. If the Bears were to cut him in the coming weeks, they could gain up to $9.8 million of cap room.

Logically, that's a move Emery would want to make somewhere near the opening of free agency to add to his spending budget.

Asked about Peppers' contract and future on multiple occasions Thursday, Emery skillfully sidestepped the questions.

What Emery said: "That would be a contract question and I have had a very demonstrated history of not answering those questions. ... To quote Marc: 'Decisions are made when they have to be made.'"

Linebackers' to-do list

Storyline: New position coach Reggie Herring inherits a group that has only one certainty: 12th-year veteran Lance Briggs will head into training camp inked in as the weak-side starter.

Beyond that? Well, Shea McClellin will move from defensive end to linebacker, starting the offseason program in the strong-side slot with a possibility of mixing in at middle linebacker.

Second-year linebacker Jon Bostic also will be given a chance to compete in the middle and on the strong side but ultimately may be Briggs' successor on the weak side after this season.

Khaseem Greene will be asked to take the next step in his development. And D.J. Williams, who played only six games last season and will see his contract expire in March, still could figure into the position as Emery is promoting intense competition.

So where does Herring come in? With 33 years of coaching experience, including eight in the NFL, the Bears admire his defensive knowledge, his experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 systems and, most of all, his ability to teach and develop young talent.

What Trestman said: "Reggie is extremely passionate and dynamic in his presentation. That will help. He's very good at developing young players, and he will have the respect of our veterans because of his experience."

Bears behind Conte

Storyline: Coming off a disappointing season, one that ended with a costly missed assignment in the final minute of a season-ending 33-28 loss to the Packers, safety Chris Conte will need his bruised confidence to heal if he is to make an impact in 2014.

Emery has talked about adding depth and competition at safety but also voiced optimism Thursday that Conte can regroup and remain a starter as he heads into the final season of his rookie contract.

What Emery said: "The No. 1 thing for Chris making improvements is Chris himself. I'm not counting on other guys getting better to help another player improve. It's on them each individually. ... Chris knows he has to compete to start. My vision is for him to win it. I would love to be talking to him about a contract extension. So let's see what he does."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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