1st-and-10: Bears 2023 defense starts up front — with Jalen Carter?

The Georgia All-America defensive tackle, arguably the best defensive player in the draft, is a 3-technique prospect who could do for Matt Eberflus’ defense what Tommie Harris did for Lovie Smith’s defense in 2004-08.

SHARE 1st-and-10: Bears 2023 defense starts up front — with Jalen Carter?
Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter (88) had a sack, two tackles for loss and six quarterback hits in Georgia’s 50-30 rout of LSU in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter (88) had a sack, two tackles for loss and six quarterback hits in Georgia’s 50-30 rout of LSU in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

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Are the Bears making room for Jalen Carter already?

The 6-3, 300-pound first-team All-America defensive tackle out of Georgia might be the best defensive player in the 2023 NFL Draft and could be the 3-technique tackle that makes Matt Eberflus’ defense click — like Tommie Harris did for Lovie Smith’s defense in 2004-08.

Eberflus has made it clear that the 3-technique is the most critical position in his defense. The Bears’ biggest expense in free agency after Eberflus was hired was former Bengals defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to fill that 3-technique spot. When Ogunjobi couldn’t pass his physical, the Bears turned to former Chargers defensive tackle Justin Jones.

Jones has been an active and intermittently effective defender — and a team leader who was named a captain after linebacker Roquan Smith was traded. But he hasn’t provided the impact the Bears need at that position.

Eberflus already has indicated interest in upgrading the position. The Bears played Jones at left defensive end for a few snaps against the Packers in Week 13 — to boost the edge rush, Eberflus said. And when asked Monday about Jones’ effectiveness at the 3-technique, he immediately referenced Jones’ trial at end.

“Justin’s done great in there. He’s done a good job,” Eberflus said. “We’re looking at him at defensive end, which will be cool for him to be able to look at that, but also play inside. We do a lot of movements inside — that really enhances his skill set.”

Eberflus doesn’t settle for anything less than stellar play at the 3-technique. When he was hired as defensive coordinator with the Colts in 2018, the team signed Denico Autry, who led the Colts with nine sacks in his first season.

When Autry’s effectiveness diminished in 2019, Colts general manager Chris Ballard made a bold move to get an upgrade — trading the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 draft to the 49ers for DeForest Buckner (and moved Autry to defensive end). The Colts immediately gave Buckner a five-year, $105 million contract extension that made him the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL behind Aaron Donald. That’s how important the 3-technique is to Eberflus.

He was enthusiastic about Jones having Autry’s versatility.

“Absolutely,” Eberflus said. “That’s why we brought him here — because he can play all [defensive line] positions. The 5, the 9, the 6, [the] 3. He can play all those.”

The Bears (3-10), on pace for a top-three spot in the 2023 draft, figure to have tempting trade-down options involving teams desperate for a quarterback. But Carter might be their best move, and he won’t last long.

And there’s the rub. Carter is projected to go No. 2 overall to the Seahawks (who have the Broncos’ first-round pick) in a mock draft by ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay — with the Bears taking Alabama’s Will Anderson at No. 3.

There’s a long way to go before everything shakes out in the 2023 draft. But the Bears, who were one pick short of drafting Donald in 2014 (settling for cornerback Kyle Fuller), could be one pick short of getting Carter.

Whatever scenario ensues, it’ll be interesting to see if general manager Ryan Poles can maneuver the draft any better than predecessor Ryan Pace. The last time the Bears moved up from No. 3 to No. 2 to get their guy, it didn’t end well.

2a. The Bears dropped one spot in the draft order over their bye week — from No. 2 to No. 3 after the Broncos (3-10) lost to the Chiefs.

If the Bears finish 3-14, they would be no lower than No. 3. If they finish 4-13, they would be no lower than No. 5.

2b. The Bears likely will lose all draft-order ties — strength of schedule — because they currently have the most difficult 17-game schedule in the NFL this season. Their opponents have a .572 winning percentage (125-93-3). The Packers are second at .561 (123-96-2).

3. Did You Know? If the Bears had beaten the Lions and Commanders, they’d have the 14th pick in the first round.

4. So much for the Robert Quinn reunion Sunday at Soldier Field. Quinn, who was traded to the Eagles for a 2023 fourth-round pick, is on injured reserve after injuring his knee in practice.

The Eagles still are hoping Quinn can return for the playoffs, but he has not made a big impact since the trade — two tackles and two quarterback hits in five games (70 snaps).

5. But Sunday’s game will be a reunion for Eberflus and Eagles coach Nick Sirianni, who was the Colts’ offensive coordinator when Eberflus was their defensive coordinator in 2018-20.

“His office was right next to mine for three years. We were really close,” Eberflus said. “We lived in the same neighborhood. Families hung out together. He’s got a great family. He’s a great family man. He comes from a football family — his dad was a coach, brothers were coaches. And he’s a really good person.

Eberflus and Sirianni have another thing in common — both gave up play-calling to put more focus on the job of being a head coach and managing a team. The Eagles have won 18 of their last 21 regular-season games after starting 3-6 under Sirianni.

6. Wide Receivers Matter Dept.: Let the record show that the Eagles improvement started with quarterback Jalen Hurts, who won five of his last six regular-season starts in 2021, but accelerated and reached another level with the addition of wide receiver A.J. Brown, who has 65 receptions for 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Good players teach you how to win.

7. This week’s web poll question: Which would be a better indicator that the Bears’ rebuild is on the right track: competitive losses to the Super Bowl-contending Eagles and Bills, or a victory against the surging Lions?

8. A Bears defense that has an NFL-low 16 sacks and 34 pressures could be in for a long day against an Eagles team that leads the NFL in scoring, including 40, 35 and 48 points in its last three games. But the return of rookie defensive backs Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon — and a week off could give the Bears a fighting chance.

For what it’s worth, the Colts were 4-0 in the game following the bye in Eberflus’ four seasons as defensive coordinator. Last year, the Colts had a Week 14 bye and beat the Patriots 27-17 in Week 15. Eberflus’ defense pitched a first-half shutout (23 plays, 103 yards) against a Patriots team that came in averaging 32.1 points in a seven-game winning streak (and also was coming off a bye).

Eberflus, in fact, has won eight of his last nine games coming off the bye, going back to his days coaching linebackers for the Cowboys.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith sacked Kenny Pickett and had an interception against former Bears teammate Mitch Trubisky in a 16-14 road victory over the Steelers.

The Ravens (9-4) are 4-1 since acquiring Smith from the Bears for a second-round draft pick. Their defense is allowing 13.4 points per game in that span (second in the NFL), 276.2 yards (third) and 2.8 rushing yards per carry (first). The Ravens were 21st, 24th and 14th in those categories before trading for Smith.

10. Bear-ometer: 4-13 — vs. Eagles (L); vs. Bills (L); at Lions (L); vs. Vikings (W).

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