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Bears’ draft plans may hinge on DT Aaron Donald

PITTSBURGH PA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Logan Thomas #3 VirginiTech Hokies is sacked by Bryan Murphy #93 AarDonald #97 Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 15: Logan Thomas #3 of the Virginia Tech Hokies is sacked by Bryan Murphy #93 and Aaron Donald #97 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game on September 15, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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WATCH LIST

Dominique Easley, Florida, 6-2, 288:

The Bears sent a traveling party to Easley’s pro day earlier this month, and with good reason: The talented three-technique tackle is recovering from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament and medial meniscus.

He put his knee at ‘‘80 percent’’ after the workout, which featured hands-on drills with Bears defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni inside Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Bears interviewed Easley, too.

His medical history — he tore the ACL in his left knee in 2011 — likely will drop him into the second round or later. At that cost, he could be a high-upside play for the Bears.

Five more

Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh, 6-1, 285: He led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss per game, and the growing consensus is that despite his stature, Donald can be dominant in the NFL.

Timmy Jernigan, Florida State, 6-2, 299: He’s ‘‘not a 3-4 guy’’ but ‘‘not necessarily a guy that gets into the backfield as a 4-3 guy,’’ ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said. But he has the size the Bears covet.

Louis Nix, Notre Dame, 6-2, 331: Nix profiles better as a 3-4 nose tackle and would need to land on a team comfortable with his super-outgoing personality.

Will Sutton, Arizona State, 6-0, 292: A pure three-technique rusher, the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year could be available in Round 2.

Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota, 6-6, 310: The converted tight end ran hot and cold in college. Kiper believes he could land with the New England Patriots or Seattle Seahawks late on Day 1.

Tuesday: Tight ends.

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Leading up to the NFL draft, which begins May 8, the Sun-Times is taking a position-by-position look at the Bears’ needs and which players might be available to fill them.

In the early days of January, it would have seemed preposterous that the Bears would use the No.  14 overall pick in the NFL draft on Aaron Donald.

At 6-1, 285 pounds, the Pitt star was considered too small, even for a team that values an explosive three-technique player in its 4-3 defense.

Less than three months later, it seems more likely Donald could be snatched up before the Bears make their first pick.

How?

The unanimous All-American dominated the Senior Bowl in late January.

The next month, Donald ran an absurd 4.68-second 40-yard dash. He finished second among defensive linemen in the bench press and fourth in the three-cone drill.

He wowed in interviews and in the last month has been compared to Hall of Famer John Randle and Pro Bowl player Geno Atkins.

‘‘I don’t think he really has anything to answer,’’ NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. ‘‘The only concern you’d have is he’s not a 315-pound guy. But we always talk in scouting: You want a guy to make it through the whole process and check every box.

‘‘He’s dominant on tape. . .. He lives in the backfield as a pass rusher. He’s explosive with his hands, and he’s also able to kind of bend and wrap, and a really dynamic interior pass rusher.’’

The Bears need one after losing Henry Melton and Corey Wootton via free agency.

They re-signed Jeremiah Ratliff for two years and $4 million and Nate Collins for one year at $730,001. (The dollar more than the minimum allows the Bears to negotiate a midyear extension above his current salary.)

Entering the final season of his rookie deal, Stephen Paea will be the third member of the Bears’ rotation. That leaves room for an under tackle who can play the pass and — after the Bears finished dead last defending it — the run.

If the Bears don’t draft a tackle in the first round, they’ll try to in the second. Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, linked with the Bears earlier this offseason, could be a fit at No. 14, while Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman figures to land late in the first or early in the second round.

The Bears have met with Notre Dame’s Louis Nix, Arizona State’s Will Sutton and Florida’s Dominique Easley. They could be in play in Round 2 if the Bears select a safety first.

That depends on Donald’s availability. Until he’s selected — by the Bears or someone else — he will loom large in draft plans both inside Halas Hall and beyond.

‘‘We’re our own players,’’ Sutton said when asked about Donald. ‘‘He has his style. I have mine.’’

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley



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