When the Chicago Bears parted ways with stalwart linebacker Brian Urlacher, an era ended. Seven-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs was still on board but it was clear things would never be the same again. To ward off a significant drop off in production, GM Phil Emery invested heavily at linebacker this past offseason, signing veterans D.J. Williams and James Anderson, and drafting Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene in the second and fourth rounds respectively.
Things got off to an ominous start, with Williams injuring his calf the first week of training camp, which forced him to miss the entire preseason. The injury gave Bostic the opportunity to play middle linebacker with the starters and he flashed serious potential in the preseason.
Williams returned in time for the regular season but tore his pectoral in Week 6, which landed him on IR. A week later, Briggs went down with a shoulder injury that put him on the shelf for seven games. The injuries forced both Bostic and Greene into starting duty, and things didn't go well.
At the time of Briggs' injury, Chicago's defense was ranked 12th in the league against the run. Five weeks later, the unit ranked dead last in the NFL versus the run. It was a precipitous drop off in overall production, one that handcuffed the entire team and seemed to spread like a curse.
Let's take a look at the individual performance of each Bears linebacker from 2013 to find out who should stay, who should go and what changes are necessary.
Briggs played just eight and a half games this year, yet he finished fourth on the team in tackles (71), first in tackles for loss (10) and second in forced fumbles (2), while also adding 3.5 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, he led the team in missed tackles (18), so he was far from perfect, yet Briggs was an impact player on the field. He has definitely lost a step but the seven-time Pro Bowler can still play at a high level. His contract is up after next season and, considering his behind-closed-doors displeasure with the organization for firing Lovie Smith and booting Urlacher, it's doubtful he'll return in 2015, if he plays at all. Enjoy Briggs for one more year Bears fans because one of the best linebackers to ever play in Chicago will be gone before you know it.
Williams played well during his five-plus games this year, racking up 17 tackles, 2.0 sacks, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He was a disruptive linebacker who played with a lot of pride against the run. Like Briggs, it was obvious Williams, a 10-year veteran, had lost a step but the player who once led the league in tackles (2007) clearly had plenty left in the tank. The problem with Williams is he's brittle. He barely made it through four training camp practices before landing on the injury report, then injured an entirely different part of his body five weeks into the campaign. He signed a one-year deal last offseason. The Bears would like to bring him back but it's tough to depend on a 32-year-old who can't stay on the field.
Anderson proved to be by far the best coverage linebacker on the team. His awareness in zone sets and his quickness in man-to-man was very valuable last year. Yet Anderson was the worst linebacker in the league against the run. He consistently filled the wrong gaps, ran himself out of plays and crumbled against opposing blockers. He was one of the main reasons the Bears were so horrible against the run. His performance was extremely surprising for an eight-year veteran who has played outside linebacker in a 4-3 system his entire career. Anderson also signed a one-year deal last offseason and it will be borderline shocking if the Bears re-sign him.
In the preseason, Bostic returned an interception for a touchdown and was fined for demolishing an opposing receiver. His speed, quickness and big-play ability had almost everyone buying into his potential. He was thrust into the fire after Williams was injured and it was quickly clear that Bostic wasn't ready for prime time. He looked lost in coverage and against the run, he lacked vision and could not fight off blocks. He played so poorly at middle linebacker that Emery said Bostic will likely be shifted to outside linebacker next season. He's a raw kid who has a lot of room for improvement but Bostic has potential. Most of his mistakes were mental, not physical. If the game ever slows down for him, he can be a starter, but it's unclear at this point if that will ever happen.
Greene was inserted on the weak side in place of Briggs and, like Bostic, he struggled transitioning to the NFL game. In both coverage and against the run, Greene looked completely lost at times. He did show some big-hit ability and has potential as a downhill linebacker, but Greene was not ready to be a starter last year. The Bears drafted him in the fourth round as a developmental player and had no intention of throwing him into the fire his first season. So it was no surprise to see him play like an inexperienced rookie. Greene packs a punch and is the all-time NCAA leader in forced fumbles, so he's not a lost cause. If he can learn from his mistakes last year, he can develop into a contributor down the line.
Bears 2013 Linebacker Grade: D+
Emery said the team is going to get younger on defense but you can't get much younger than two rookies in the starting lineup. Bostic and Greene were drafted to be the team's long-term starting linebackers. After their performances last season, it's hard to have faith that either will flip the switch as early as next season. For that reason, expect the Bears to again invest in one or two veteran linebackers in free agency.
The wildcard in 2014 is Shea McClellin, who will be shifted to outside linebacker next year. It's unclear if he has the skill set to be a 4-3 OLB but the Bears are going to give him an opportunity to play the position. If he fails, and if Bostic and Greene don't improve, the club will be forced to start from scratch in 2015.
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.