If you had to rank the Bears' needs with the NFL Combine next week in Indianapolis and preparations for the 2013 draft in April well underway, it would start with offensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends.
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN's longtime draft guru, said he thinks the Bears will look at offensive tackle or tight end in the first round. The Bears hold the 20th overall pick.
According to Kiper, Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M), Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) and Lane Johnson (Oklahoma) are the top three left tackles and should be selected in the first half of the first round. Kiper, in his latest projections, has the Bears selecting Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker (6-6, 335 pounds) at No. 20.
"D.J. Fluker, I love out of Alabama," Kiper said during a two-hour conference call with media on Wednesday. "I know other people don't have him in the first [round]. I have him solidly in the first. I would be shocked if come April 25 (the first day of the draft), he's not in the first-round mix. Right now, I have him going in Round 1. I think he's a heck of a football player.
"People kept saying, 'Well, he's not a great pass blocker.' Well, at right tackle, if you watch some of those games against some skilled pass rushers, he did a heck of a job. He's got incredibly long arms. He's got good enough feet. He's certainly a dominant run blocker. I think he'll be either a left tackle with some teams or at worst a great right tackle. He'll be a heck of a player."
After Fluker, Kiper listed Justin Pugh (Syracuse), Louisiana State's Jordan Mills (Louisiana State), Menelik Watson (Florida State), Kyle Long (Oregon) and Brian Winters (Kent State) as the other top tackles. But he did say some may turn out to be better guards.
"There's a lot of guys who can fit in at one spot or another," Kiper said. "There's going to be a lot of tackles evaluated."
It's possible that Johnson (6-7, 302 pounds) may slip to the Bears. Johnson, a quarterback in high school, improved his draft status with an impressive -- and consistent -- showing at the Senior Bowl, including the practices.
"Lane Johnson, with all his versatility, [came] into his own really over the last couple years at Oklahoma," Kiper said. "[Sooners coach] Bob Stoops had raved about him when I spoke to Oklahoma people a couple of years ago prior to the start of his junior year. He's a kid who had a great Senior Bowl week. The Senior Bowl helped Fisher. It helped Johnson. Joeckel is obviously up there any way. So three left tackles all could be off the board by the middle of the first round."
But don't rule out a tight end for the Bears. Kiper said the Bears are among teams who may be interested in Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert and Stanford tight end Zach Ertz.
The Bears' trio of Kellen Davis, Matt Spaeth and Kyle Adams excelled at run blocking, but they combined for only 29 catches and 297 receiving yards this season. There were 37 tight ends who had more receiving yards individually this season.
Eifert (6-6, 251 pounds) and Ertz (6-6, 252 pounds) are both big and athletic pass-catchers.
"Tyler Eifert is battling Zach Ertz," Kiper said. "Those two are battling to see who the first tight end drafted will be. If it's Ertz or Eifert, depending upon who it is, the tight end possibilities in terms of teams would be the Giants at No. 19, possibly Pittsburgh at No. 17, the Bears at No. 20, Atlanta at No. 30. Right now, I have Eifert going to Atlanta at pick No. 30."
Kiper did say that if it wasn't for juniors like Eifert entering the draft that the tight end class would be low on talent. Florida's Jordan Reed and Michigan State's Dion Sims are some juniors to watch.
"It's a pretty good year because of the juniors and that's the only reason I say pretty good," Kiper said. "It would have been awful had it not been for the juniors."