Bears Positional Battles: Linebacker

In Chicago, the linebacker position is in a state of flux, with new blood permeating the roster. We break down in detail the current competition for five Bears linebacker positions.

This much we know: Brian Urlacher is no longer a member of the Chicago Bears, while Lance Briggs, at 33 years old, is on the downswing of his career. Beyond that, the linebacker position in the Windy City is entirely unclear. We know the competitors but how the depth chart will eventually shake out is anyone's guess.

With that in mind, we break down who is playing where, who has the potential to move up or down the depth chart, and predict how the roster will look once the regular season begins.

The Veterans

D.J. Williams (6-1, 242) 10th year
Coinciding with Urlacher's departure was the signing of Williams, a 10-year veteran who has played every linebacker position and, in 2007, led the league in tackles (141). He's an experienced player with a large body of productive work but in reality, Williams is nothing more than a rental. He is signed for just one year and, at 30 years old, he is not a long-term option for the Bears. On top of that, he's coming off a season in which he was suspended twice, once for violating the league's substance abuse policy and again for incurring his second DUI since 2005. Williams is currently working with the first team at MIKE but is coming off the field in nickel sets, so Chicago's coaching staff obviously sees him as just a two-down defender. He'll likely start off the season as the starter in the middle but his job is far from secure.

James Anderson (6-2, 235) 8th year
When Nick Roach bolted for Oakland, the Bears quickly signed Anderson, who was cut by the Panthers this offseason to save salary cap space. His 94 appearances in Carolina are the most by a linebacker in franchise history. Like Williams, Anderson is a solid veteran, one who has played outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense his entire career. But also like Williams, Anderson is signed for just one season. He'll turn 30 in September, so it's also unlikely the Bears view him as anything more than a stopgap for this season. He's currently working at SLB with the starters and stays on the field next to Briggs on passing downs. Anderson has looked very good so far this offseason and is on pace to be the full-time SAM starter in 2013.

The Kids

Jon Bostic (6-1, 245) Rookie
The team's second-round pick this year, Bostic is viewed as the future of the MIKE position in Chicago, a position that has long featured Hall-of-Fame caliber athletes. Those are big shoes to fill but from what we've seen during minicamps and OTAs, Bostic has all the tools to excel in that role. On film, he shows extreme explosiveness and violence at the point of attack, which should allow him to be strong against the run. Yet even more impressive has been his quickness and speed in pass coverage. In Chicago's Cover 2 system, the MIKE has to quickly drop to the deep middle zone. Not only has Bostic shown the necessary speed to cover the deep seams, he has also demonstrated on-field leadership and schematic understanding beyond his years. Calling plays for an SEC team obviously has prepared Bostic for his future role as the leader of the Bears' defense.

Khaseem Greene (6-1, 241) Rookie
Greene, considered by some as a second-round talent in this year's draft, fell to the fourth round, where the Bears were happy to grab him. A chase linebacker, Greene showed outstanding on-field quickness at Rutgers, which helped earn him Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012. Additionally, he forced 15 fumbles during his collegiate career, which is an NCAA record. Greene's film, as well as his solid resume, would make one think he could challenge for a starting spot this year, yet he may not be ready for such responsibility, at least not early in the season. Greene showed up to rookie minicamp noticeably larger than his listed 241 pounds. It appeared to affect his quickness, particularly in coverage, where the former safety has been beaten repeatedly. Based on his small body of work so far this offseason, it's easier to understand why he fell in the draft. He still has the potential to be a long-term replacement for Briggs on the weak side but Greene's value this year will very likely be limited to special teams.

The Frontrunner

Blake Costanzo (6-1, 235) 7th year
After the aforementioned five LBs, the Bears will be looking to fill one, and possibly two, more linebacker spots. The leader in that competition is Costanzo, but not because of his ability as a linebacker. Chicago views Costanzo as a crucial piece on special teams and has made him the captain of the third phase. He plays on every ST unit and was second on the team in 2012 in special teams tackles (11). He has been working at MIKE with the third team this offseason and showed last year he can be an adequate fill in if injuries hit the starters. Yet Costanzo will make the final 53-man roster because of special teams, where he's an asset too valuable to cut.

The Wildcard

J.T. Thomas (6-1, 241) 3rd year
The club's sixth-round pick in 2011, Thomas has made serious strides as a linebacker. He's working at SAM with the second-team right now and has demonstrated a solid grasp of the system, something with which he struggled his first two seasons. In particular, his awareness in coverage has improved dramatically. Yet with all the talent in front of him, Thomas is going to have to prove himself on special teams if he wants to again make the final roster. He had six ST tackles last year and even forced a fumble, so he has value but he'll need to truly shine over the next few months to convince the coaching staff to keep seven linebackers.

The Long Shots

Patrick Trahan (6-2, 236) 2nd year
Jerry Franklin (6-1, 245) 2nd year
Lawrence Wilson (6-1, 229) 2nd year

Trahan and Franklin were active briefly for the Bears toward the end of last season. Trahan was actually released in Week 14 but he showed enough to earn another invite to training camp this year. Along with Wilson, these three linebackers are buried on the depth chart and have no chance at earning playing time on defense. Unless Costanzo and Thomas are both hit by injuries, it's going to be extremely tough for any of them to make the 53.

Analysis

I fully expect the Bears to break camp with the three veterans –Briggs, Williams and Anderson – as the starters. Starting rookies in Week 1 is never ideal, so Chicago's coaching staff will want experience on the field once the regular season begins. Behind them, Greene, Costanzo and possibly Thomas are destined for special teams.

That leaves just Bostic, whom I believe will overtake Williams as the starting middle linebacker at some point in 2013. Bostic has been extremely impressive so far. He's obviously intelligent and has already shown a strong understanding of the system. Williams has more experience than Bostic but beyond that the rookie is bigger, faster and eight years younger. As soon as he fully grasps his duties on defense, the Bears may not be able to keep Bostic off the field, as he could have an immediate impact this season.


Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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