The parting of ways with Brian Urlacher this offseason came as a shock to many Chicago Bears fans. Yet enough time has passed for the reality of an Urlacher-less defense to sink in. It is what it is and the club now has to move on without him.
Yet trying to replace an eight-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer is far easier said than done. In reality, no one will ever be able to replace Urlacher's production and on-field leadership, as players of his caliber don't come along very often. If the Bears can find a quality player who can serve as a solid foundation in the middle, that should be good enough. And if they find a diamond in the rough, one who can be a dominant presence and lead the defense into the future, all the better.
To that end, GM Phil Emery this offseason invested heavily in players that could fill the void. To start, he signed veterans D.J. Williams and James Anderson in free agency. He followed that up by using a second-round pick on Jon Bostic and a fourth-round selection on Khaseem Greene.
Lance Briggs will be the rock around which the defense revolves in 2013, yet what will the full starting lineup look like heading into Week 1? We break down the scenarios that could play out in Bourbonnais.
The case for D.J. Williams
In 2007, Williams served as the MIKE for the Denver Broncos and racked up 141 total tackles, which led the NFL that season. That was in a 4-3 defense similar to the one run in Chicago. So there's no doubting Williams knows how to play the position at a very high level.
As a result, the Bears have inserted Williams as the starting middle linebacker this offseason. At the moment, he's the player expected to fill Urlacher's shoes this season.
"I'm not coming in here trying to take over," Williams said during voluntary minicamp. "I'm coming here trying to assist Lance and take the load off of him a little bit."
When you have an experienced player who has had success in the very role for which he's competing, it's hard not to consider Williams the favorite. If inserted as the starting MIKE, Williams should be able to keep the ship afloat. Yet there are a couple of major question marks surrounding his potential to be a first-team contributor this season.
First, Williams hasn't played in a 4-3 since 2008, instead working as an inside linebacker in Denver's 3-4 system the past four seasons.
"It's not really a big difference. Most defenses play the same, it's just different terminology," said Williams. "But I'm playing a different position. I played MIKE linebacker before, about six years ago, so now I've just got to get used to the reads and the vision of that part."
That could be a substantial transition, particularly when it comes to making the correct calls and reads on the field.
Second, Williams is no spring chicken. He turns 31 this week and is coming off a year in which he was suspended twice, once for a DUI, the second of his career, and once for violating the league's substance abuse policy. With those incidents fresh in our memories, it's easy to question his dedication. If things go sour in camp, how will a man with some obvious demons handle it?
"He's a guy that has come here to reinvent himself so to speak — maybe that's the wrong term," Marc Trestman said. "But he's in a new place, at a new time and a new start. There are guys on this team that know him and guys in the locker room that think very highly of him. He's very noticeable out there in practice."
Notable during this offseason was the fact Williams was taken off the field in nickel sets. The coaching staff obviously isn't sold on his ability as a three-down linebacker, which could also hurt his starting chances down the line.
The case for James Anderson
Anderson spent seven years with the Carolina Panthers before being cut in a cost-saving move this offseason. He'll turn 30 shortly after the start of this year's campaign but he doesn't have as much mileage as Williams, as Anderson started just 10 games his first four years in the league combined.
He didn't become the full-time starter at strong-side linebacker until 2010, a position he held the past three seasons. In 2010 and 2011 combined, he totaled 275 tackles. His 94 appearances are the most by a linebacker in Panthers franchise history, yet the club could not afford the five-year, $22 million contract he signed in 2011, which is the reason he's now manning the SAM position for the Bears.
Anderson looked very good in OTAs and minicamps. He, and not Williams, stayed on the field next to Briggs on third downs. Anderson comes into the same 4-3 defense run in Carolina, playing the exact same position. Barring injury, it will be very surprising if he's not the SAM starter in Week 1.
The case for Jon Bostic
On film, Bostic is a disruptive, violent player who can explode plays at the point of attack. He appeared a little stiff and his game-speed wasn't all that impressive in college. As such, many questioned his value as a second-round pick.
Yet, since joining the team, Bostic has been nothing but impressive. He has very good speed, something he also demonstrated at the combine (4.61 40-yard dash). In coverage drills, he has shown good read-and-react skills, which leads me to believe he can effectively drop into the deep middle in Cover 2.
We haven't seen Bostic with the pads on yet but if he carries his collegiate aggressiveness to the practice fields in Bourbonnais, he will quickly turn heads. His biggest challenge will be learning the system, in role, terminology, and pre- and post-snap reads. But once he gets up to speed, he should be able to give Williams a strong run for his money at MIKE.
The case for Khaseem Greene
Greene was a highly productive player at Rutgers and was named the Big East Player of the Year the past two seasons. During his collegiate career, he forced 21 fumbles, which is an all-time NCAA record. On film, the former safety showed great game-speed and was solid in coverage.
Yet Greene didn't show the same quickness during minicamps and was not impressive in 1-on-1 coverage drills. He looked no different than a lot of the rookies out there, just trying to hang on and not make too many mistakes. There was not one single play during the 12 sessions I saw up close in which Greene stood out. In reality, he was just another body out there, so he has a huge uphill climb ahead of him in Bourbonnais if he wants to break camp as a starter.
Greene's skill set makes him best suited on the weak side, where he can serve as a trail linebacker. With Briggs a fixture at WILL, and Greene's struggles so far, it's highly unlikely he ends up in the starting lineup this season. More likely, Greene will be a quality special teams contributor.
That leaves us three possible starting scenarios:
This is the likeliest scenario, as it puts the three most-experienced players on the field. There will be no learning curve with these players, so this offers the easiest route to productivity.
If there is going to be a shift in starters, this would make the most sense. Bostic appears to have the requisite skill set to play MIKE and has the potential to be Urlacher's long-term replacement. If he can quickly grasp the system and he shows well in the preseason games, there's no reason to keep him off the field. Let him start as a rookie, like Urlacher did, and begin building his legacy.
Honestly, I believe Bostic is best fit on the strong side, as his pure power at the point of attack would be very valuable against the run. If Anderson falters, the Bears may slide Bostic to SAM, where he wouldn't have the responsibility of being a rookie MIKE.
I will have my eyes peeled on Bostic during training camp. He can move as far up the depth chart as he wants. If he comes out and plays like the future of the defense, it's hard to envision Chicago's coaching staff keeping him on the bench. If he shows he deserves it, the Bears will make him a starter, whether at MIKE or SAM.
But if he isn't ready and the staff feels he'd be better served learning from the veterans, then he'll sit and learn. Yet it wouldn't be surprising if he still ends up a starter by the end of the campaign. Bostic will be the main key in forming Chicago's 2013 linebacker corps.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.