To say the Chicago Bears linebackers struggled last season would be an understatement. The unit was battered by injury, inexperience and overall poor play, which played a large part in the team’s notorious defensive rankings.
Yet despite last year’s embarrassing performance, the front office did almost nothing to upgrade personnel at the position. Jordan Senn, a career special teams player, was the only free-agent addition and GM Phil Emery ignored the position completely in the draft.
So why should we believe this year’s group will outperform a 2013 unit that let the defense down? Let’s break down Chicago’s 2014 linebackers to find reasons for hope.
Lance Briggs enters his 12th season as a core member of the defense. The seven-time Pro Bowler will again serve as the stalwart of Chicago’s linebacker unit. At weak-side linebacker, there are few more-consistent defenders in the league than Briggs.
Yet there are reasons for concern with a player who will turn 34 before season’s end. Many believe Briggs lost a step last season and he no longer has the quickness or speed to chase down ball carriers sideline to sideline.
Age and injury are also major question marks. After missing just four games total his first 10 seasons in the league, Briggs was knocked out for seven games last year due to a shoulder injury. Now in his mid-30s and with more than a decade of NFL wear and tear, his body will likely continue to deteriorate.
Health will be the biggest hurdle for Briggs to overcome this season. If he can stay off the injury report, he’ll again be a solidifying force on the Bears defense, even if he’s no longer the player he once was. His vast experience will help greatly for a defense in transition, as long as he’s on the field.
Like Briggs, D.J. Williams is a linebacker with more than 10 years of NFL experience. Also like Briggs, Williams is coming off a season in which injury cost him 10 games. He also missed all of the preseason with a strained calf.
Unless he stumbles across the fountain of youth, the 31-year-old will continue to be a major injury risk going forward. In fact, I’ll set the over/under on games played this season for Williams, a player whose body is beginning to break down, at eight. Place your bets.
Yet Williams can still play when he’s healthy. Through five-plus games played in 2013, he led the team in tackles and sacks, and was very solid filling gaps against the run. He’s a quality player that, if he can stay off the injury report, can help Chicago’s defense in multiple different ways.
Something to Prove
Jon Bostic wasn’t supposed to start as a rookie last year but the injury to Williams thrust him into the starting role at MIKE. Against both the run and pass, Bostic struggled mightily. He was not stout at the point of attack, lacked awareness and instincts in coverage, and appeared genuinely confused most of the time.
The team believes Bostic is a better fit on the outside, which is why he’ll likely emerge from training camp as the starter on the strong side. If the move to OLB has its desired effect, Bostic will develop into the impact player he was in college, a defender who filled gaps with authority and showed above average speed.
Yet it’s anyone’s guess if Bostic can make drastic improvement in just one NFL offseason. The team believes he’ll emerge as a breakout player in 2014 but at this point, after a highly disappointing rookie year, we’ll need to see it before we believe it.
Bostic worked at both SAM and MIKE with the first team during offseason activities. If Williams goes down with injury again, Bostic will likely slide inside, as there are no other players on the roster with experience at middle linebacker.
After two years playing defense end, former Bears first-round draft pick Shea McClellin has been shifted to linebacker. In reality, that’s about all we know in regard to McClellin’s potential impact this year. He played some outside linebacker in college and high school but the NFL is a different animal, which will make the position switch even harder.
Until the pads come on and we see him in action, it’s impossible to say how he’ll perform in 2014, but here’s what we do know:
McClellin worked at both middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker during OTAs and minicamp. He took reps with both the first team and the second team. We also know that McClellin has lost roughly 15 pounds, changing his body to a leaner, faster version.
Barring injury, it’s doubtful McClellin will emerge from training camp in the starting unit. A position switch of this magnitude, in a defense that is undergoing major changes in scheme and system, doesn’t happen overnight. Most likely, McClellin will serve as the primary backup at both the MIKE and SAM positions.
Yet he’s more than just a second-team player, as his diverse skill set and experience rushing the passer could make him a weapon in specialty packages. McClellin could be very effective as a roving blitzer, one who can line up in multiple positions to keep opposing offenses guessing.
Even if he never starts a game this season, McClellin could have a big role in the defense. The onus is now defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to design packages that can take advantage McClellin’s skill set.
Bostic wasn’t the only rookie linebacker who struggled last year, as fourth rounder Khaseem Greene also left a lot of plays on the field. Starting seven games for Briggs at weak-side linebacker, Greene played like a mid-round linebacker with no experience.
Yet Greene did make a handful of plays, finishing with 21 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. He was wildly inconsistent but Greene showed enough last season to give the coaching staff confidence he can one day take over for Briggs. If he develops further this year, he could emerge as the WILL starter in 2014.
The Bears landed Christian Jones in the undrafted-free-agent market, a player many graded as a potential third rounder who fell out of the draft due to a failed drug test at the combine. He worked exclusively at SAM with the second team during OTAs and minicamp. He’s an experienced, versatile player who could easily earn a roster spot as the club’s sixth linebacker with a strong training camp and preseason.
Jordan Senn was added early in free agency. He’s an outstanding player on special teams, one who will likely be a fixture on each of coordinator Joe DeCamillis’ units. Yet Senn, who is one of the smallest linebackers in the league (5-11, 225), has just seven starts in seven NFL seasons, so it’s unlikely he’s in the team’s LB plans this season.
Best-case scenario: Briggs and Williams stay healthy for 16 games and Bostic improves on the outside. If that happens, Chicago’s linebacker unit will be just fine in 2014.
Worst-case scenario: Briggs and Williams miss significant time, Bostic and Greene stagnate, and the McClellin project turns out to be a failure. If that happens, even with an improved defensive line in front of them, the Bears’ linebacker will drag the team down in 2014.
Likeliest scenario: Briggs and Williams miss a handful of games apiece, with Bostic making small strides on the strong-side. McClellin may have to start if injuries take hold but will serve as a situational player when everyone is healthy.
Our third scenario can definitely work this year, for one main reason: new linebackers coach Reggie Herring, who has more than 30 years coaching experience. Last year’s coach, Tim Tibesar, was a rookie to the job and he appeared in over his head once the injuries began to mount.
Herring should not only prove to be a solid presence for the young linebackers but he should also ease McClellin’s transition and help keep the ship afloat if the experienced guys hit the shelf. Herring will play a large role in the overall improvement at linebacker. If his experience serves as the glue to a very shaky position, Chicago’s linebackers will improve greatly on their disappointing 2013 campaign.
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.