Post-draft: S, LB still concerns

The Chicago Bears had a productive draft, filling a number of needs on both sides of the ball, yet serious concerns still exist at a number of positions, including safety and linebacker.

The Chicago Bears defense in 2013, due to injuries and poor play, was an embarrassment. The club finished last in the league against the run for the first time in franchise history, while also finishing with the fewest sacks.

That type of ineptitude in both phases of the defense eventually cost the team a chance at the playoffs.

GM Phil Emery didn't like the taste left in his mouth from last year and has attempted to rebuild the defense front to back. He boosted the defensive line with free agents Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Israel Ionije, re-signed Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins, then drafted two defensive tackles, second rounder Ego Ferguson and third rounder Will Sutton.

Obviously, Emery has no intention of sitting through another year in which the defensive line can't stop the run and can't reach the quarterback. Rarely do you see a GM make wholesale changes, both in starters and depth, to an entire defensive line, but that's exactly what he accomplished.

This new unit up front should pay dividends right away. That will be crucial to the success of the team this year, as the back end of the defense hasn't received the same type of talent infusion. Emery did well in addressing an aging cornerback unit, yet the first-round selection of Kyle Fuller may not truly payoff until 2015 and beyond.

At linebacker, the team added Jordan Senn; at safety it was Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and fourth rounder Brock Vereen. Those additions compromise a group lacking in both experience and production and there may not be a starter out of the bunch.

Two of the club's starting linebackers are aging veterans who will be free agents after this year: 33-year-old Lance Briggs and 32-year-old D.J. William, both of whom missed significant time due to injury last season. When those two landed on the shelf the team turned to then-rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene. We know how that turned out.

Shea McClellin has been added to the mix but he's a truly an uncertain wildcard. He might excel at linebacker but it's tough to count on a guy making a position switch during his third NFL season.

The Bears added depth with three UDFA linebackers, but like McClellin, none should be counted on as answers to the team's problems. Christian Jones has the most potential of the threesome but he's a bit of a tweener who lacks instincts, so he's going to take a while.

Last year, Williams missed the entire preseason with a calf injury, then lasted just five-plus games into the regular season before a torn pectoral landed him on injured reserve. A shoulder injury knocked Briggs out for seven games, which was three more than he'd missed in his previous 10 seasons combined.

In NFL terms, Briggs and Williams are old. Last year, their bodies began to wear down and they're now a year older. It's very hard to trust their health this season.

If they both fall, the Bears will again be forced to move Bostic to MIKE, Greeene to WILL and, most likely, McClellin to SAM. Based on last year's results, that has horror-show potential.

On the back end of the defense, the talent is even thinner. Mundy has just one year of starting experience, Jennings had just two pass breakups in two full seasons as a starter for the Green Bay Packers, Chris Conte played like one of the worst safeties in the league last year, Craig Steltz is little more than a special teams player and the jury is still out on Vereen.

There is depth at both linebacker and safety, but it's questionable depth. An injury here or there and a repeat of 2013 is certainly possible.

That said, no NFL team has starters waiting in the wings at every position. Every roster will have some holes. For the Bears, three major factors will play into the success of the team's linebackers and safeties.

First, health will be critical, particularly at linebacker. If Briggs and Williams are again sidelined for long stretches, things could get ugly.

Second, the defensive line must be the dominant unit most believe they can be. There is talent all along the defensive front, players with positional versatility and the skill set to be active and productive against the run and pass. A collective letdown up front, considering the weaknesses behind them, would be devastating.

Third, the new defensive coaches must rise to the challenge. Paul Pasqualoni has replaced Mike Phair as the club's defensive line coach, while Reggie Herring has replaced Tim Tibesar as the team's linebackers coach. Last year, both Phair and Tibesar were first-year coaches in their respective roles and both ended up way in over their heads.

With Pasqualoni and Herring, the Bears now have experienced coaches who are better prepared to weather adversity. If they can get the most out of their positional groups, the defense should be just fine.

Additionally, both defensive backs coach Jon Hoke and safeties coach Chris Harris, another first timer last year, must get their players to produce at a higher level. Both Conte and Major Wright regressed dramatically under Harris' tutelage last year, so he must prove he's capable of coaching his players to their potential.

Chicago's defense is much better off than it was at the end of last season but it's not perfect. The offense is a Top 10 unit returning all 11 starters. They should have no problem holding up their end of the bargain.

If the defense can just be respectable, despite serious questions at linebacker and safety, a run in the playoffs is entirely within reach.


Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.


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