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Bears challenged to fix defense like they fixed offense

SOUTH BEND IN - SEPTEMBER 21:  Louis Nix III #1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against Connor Kruse #54

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 21: Louis Nix III #1 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against Connor Kruse #54 of the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 21, 2013 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 17-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Louis Nix III; Connor Kruse

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Updated: March 21, 2014 3:37PM

INDIANAPOLIS — Bears general manager Phil Emery performed a miracle, at least when it comes to football, last offseason.

He managed to transform one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines — one that had frustrated the heck out of quarterback Jay Cutler — into one of the more capable units. He nailed it in the 2013 draft with guard Kyle Long and tackle Jordan Mills. He got it right in free agency with guard Matt Slauson and ­tackle Jermon Bushrod.

With better players and the right coaches to the guide them, the offense emerged as one of the NFL’s best in 2013 after being mediocre for years.

Now, can Emery do the same on the defensive side of the ball?

The NFL Scouting Combine gets rolling Thursday in Indianapolis, and the Bears are on a mission to retool a defense that set records for ineptitude in 2013.

It’s still premature to analyze who the best fits are for the Bears’ needs. The Bears have too many of their defensive free agents to consider and tough decisions (think Julius Peppers) to make because of the salary cap, and free agency, which opens March 11, still needs to play out.

The only guarantees are that the Bears will have a younger defense and are in a great position to select an immediate difference-maker with the No. 14 pick in May.

A run on quarterbacks and other offensive talent could put the Bears in a dream situation. On the table for Emery and his staff could be the top defensive tackle, cornerback and safety on their draft board, whoever they may be.

‘‘I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top-20 pick this year is very similar to having a top‑10 pick last year,’’ NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said.

The Bears need help at every level on defense. But concerns up front should outweigh other shortcomings, including the situation at safety or the potential loss of cornerback Charles Tillman in free agency. Getting a high-end defensive lineman is as important for the rebuilding process as was getting a promising offensive lineman such as Long to help keep Cutler upright.

Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan has been linked to the Bears in several mock drafts. Other defensive tackles such as Notre Dame brute Louis Nix or Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald could be options. Or how about Missouri’s Kony Ealy, the best defensive end behind South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney? All four bear watching at the combine.

As with the offense, fixing the defensive line will take action in free agency. Only tackle Stephen Paea is considered a lock to return next season. Peppers’ salary-cap hit of more than $18 million may spell his end. Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Corey Wootton and Jeremiah Ratliff have expiring deals. Shea McClellin is looking at outside linebacker after two lackluster seasons on the line.

‘‘We’re going to be a younger defense,’’ Emery said after the season. ‘‘The draft will be focused in that area. It’s about finding the best playmakers — the guys that can make a dynamic difference to our defense.’’

Some good ones should be there at No. 14, especially up front.


Twitter: @adamjahns

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