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No Tommie Harris means defensive tackle a priority for Bears

Illinois State quarterback Matt Brown (13) scrambles under pressure from Illinois' Corey Liuget (93) during first half an NCAA college

Illinois State quarterback Matt Brown (13) scrambles under pressure from Illinois' Corey Liuget (93) during the first half of an NCAA college football game at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Marcell Dareus, Alabama: The Broncos could snap up the ­multi-talented tackle at No. 2 overall.

Nick Fairley, Auburn: That he only had one great college ­season concerns some scouts.

Corey Liuget, Illinois: The Rams, Colts or Eagles could nab Illini star before Bears get chance.

Phil Taylor, Baylor: 337-pounder may be better as nose guard in 3-4 scheme.

Marvin Austin, North ­Carolina: Quickness and power, but ­suspension raises red flag.

Stephen Paea, Oregon State: Tore meniscus during Senior Bowl practice and didn’t run at combine.

Muhammad Wilkerson, ­Temple: Former basketball star ­dominated MAC foes.

Jurrell Casey, USC: Surprising quickness for 305-pounder who plays hard.

Terrell McClain, South Florida: Bears sent large contingent to his pro day workout.

Updated: May 27, 2011 2:49PM

The Bears might not be as interested in using a first-round pick to protect quarterback Jay Cutler as many assume. With Tommie Harris gone, it could be argued that defensive tackle is an even greater need, especially with the importance of the “three-technique” tackle in coach Lovie Smith’s cover-2 scheme.

Once you consider the likelihood that most of the top offensive-tackle prospects will be gone long before the Bears are on the clock at No. 29, the extraordinary depth of the 2011 class of defensive linemen and the fact that general manager Jerry Angelo has used nine of 20 first-round picks on defensive linemen, what the Bears might do becomes easier to predict.

“As much as the critics will argue they need an offensive lineman, I’m not sure that’s something that’s at the top of their list,” said former front-office executive and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly. “You might see a good defensive player fall to them, whether it’s a guy like [Purdue defensive end Ryan] Kerrigan as an outside pass rusher, maybe somebody along those lines.”

Alabama’s Marcell Dareus and Auburn’s Nick Fairley are expected to be the first two defensive tackles chosen, but there are plenty of attractive candidates, including Corey Liuget of Illinois. It has been a quarter of a century since the Bears have drafted a player from the school that gave them George Halas, Red Grange and Dick Butkus, and Liuget is ideally suited to fill Harris’ former role.

Unfortunately for the Bears, they likely would have to make a significant move up to get him, which makes North Carolina’s Marvin Austin a more likely candidate.

“Corey Liuget from Illinois is a terrific player,” Casserly said. “Maybe he’s a guy that slips down there. Doubtful, but maybe he would. It would be a heck of a pick for them if he drops that far, but I don’t think he’ll make it.”

The Bears have spent a lot of time researching Austin, who fits the “three-technique” mold the Bears are looking for and likely would be ranked higher if he hadn’t been suspended by North Carolina for the 2010 season for having improper dealings with an agent.

The suspension raises obvious character concerns, which must be weighed against the value of being able to pick up a player of his ability later in the draft.

“Obviously, [Austin has] documented concerns,” Angelo said. “We’ve delved into those. Lovie and [defensive coordinator] Rod [Marinelli] went down there and spent a goodly amount of time with him. Mark Sadowski, our scout, has spent a goodly amount of time. So we feel real good about how we feel about him and knowing him.

“I always say this, and I use this term: We just don’t want any surprises on draft day when we bring a player in here. We’re not looking for halo players. We’re in the business to win football games, but we have to know what’s underneath the hood. That’s the challenge of scouting. The easy part is evaluating the tape. The hard part is knowing how a player is wired.”

With so many teams switching to 3-4 defenses, it’s easier for the Bears to find linebackers that fit into their 4-3 scheme. It’s the same way with “three-technique” tackles. Not everybody is looking for the kind of smaller, quicker tackles who can split gaps and be disruptive against the pass and the run, which should give the Bears an advantage, although that hasn’t always been the case.

The only player at that position on the roster is Henry Melton, who split time between defensive tackle and end last year and has been told to beef up for a permanent move inside.

“We really feel like we got on the same page in terms of what they were looking for, so when we went out as scouts, we were able to nail it,” player personnel director Tim Ruskell said, referring to the days he and Marinelli worked together with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “We were looking at players that weren’t the rest of the league’s No. 1 choice. Rod was always a guy that kind of favored the undersized guy inside — he didn’t have to be 6-4 — whereas some teams say, ‘I need a giant in there.’ So we had a little bit of an advantage.”

Angelo hasn’t always taken advantage of that advantage. From Jarron Gilbert to Marcus Harrison, Dusty Dvoracek and Michael Haynes, the Bears have struggled in recent years to find productive players at the position.

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