The Chicago Bears are transitioning to a 3-4 defense for the first time in franchise history this season. The shift in scheme also requires a shift in personnel.
Nowhere on the defense is this more evident than at inside linebacker, where there is Jon Bostic and little else.
Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams are gone, while Shea McClellin will likely shift to outside linebacker, where he played at Boise State. Christian Jones has potential inside but he struggles to shed blocks and may be better served off the edge, where he played his senior year at Florida State.
It could be argued that ILB is the thinnest position on the roster, which is why it is imperative GM Ryan Pace finds a young player in this year’s draft around whom coordinator Vic Fangio can build his linebacker corps.
With that in mind, here are the inside linebackers projected to come off the board in the first three rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Kendricks is arguably the best all-around linebacker in this year’s draft. He has sideline-to-sideline speed, as well as great recognition and diagnostic skills against the run. Last year’s Butkus Award winner is a three-year starter with experience and leadership in spades.
The younger brother of Eagles linebacker Michal Kendricks, Eric was a tackling machine in college. He also shows great awareness in coverage, as well as elite change-of-direction ability.
He’s slightly undersized but that’s his only knock. For the Bears, he would be a considerable reach with the 7th overall pick but if Pace can find a trade-back partner, Kendricks would be a plug-and-play starter in Chicago in the back half of the first round.
Projected: Round 1
McKinney is a fast, explosive linebacker who plays with aggression. He plays downhill against the run and fills gaps with authority. He also has very good explosiveness and was near the top of his position at the combine with a 40.5-inch vertical jump.
His 16 bench-press reps were disappointing and he’ll need to come off the field on passing downs, so McKinney is limited. But on first and second down, he’ll be a weapon at the next level. He’s a quality second-round selection who should be on Chicago’s radar at 39th overall.
Projected: Round 2
Anthony put on a show at the combine. Amongst linebackers he had the third best 40 time (4.56) and the second best short shuttle (4.03), as well as 23 reps in the bench press.
Anthony has ideal size, speed and quickness, and has rapidly moved up draft boards since his showing in Indianapolis. He’s not an instinctive player, which leads to mistakes in both the run and pass, but he’s an extreme athlete with a lot of upside. He doesn’t take on blocks well, which is concerning for a 3-4 ILB, but if the Bears can beef up the front line with space eaters and give him room to roam, Anthony could be a force.
Projected: Round 2
Dawson is an instinctive player who understands the game and excels in coverage. He’s tough to block at the second level and can mirror opposing tight ends.
Dawson lacks ideal size but his production for the Horned Frogs was nearly unmatched – ha had a tackle very 5.3 snaps last year. He has value on passing downs as well. That said, there are concerns about his attitude and he may not have the bulk to line up inside in a 3-4 system.
Projected: Round 2-3
What Perryman lacks in size he makes up for in attitude. He’s an old-school linebacker who loves to hit. He’s aggressive and physical when taking on blocks and can lay the lumber when he gets a head of steam.
In coverage, he’s borderline worthless, particularly in man sets. As a result, he’s only a part-time player but he can be great in a rotational role. He’s a little small for a 3-4 defense but Perryman’s demeanor and attitude could make him a quality backup who provides value on first and second down.
THE PICK: Stephone Anthony
In our first Bear Report mock draft, we chose McKinney in the second round. For our purposes here, we’ll choose another second-round linebacker in Anthony.
The Bears are paper thin at ILB and must target the position early, especially considering how shallow the position is in this year’s class. At 39th overall, they should have all but Kendricks from which to choose.
Anthony is arguably the best athlete on this short list. He has elite speed and quickness, as well as perfect size (6-3, 245) for the position. He’s not great at the point of attack and must improve taking on blockers, but as the weak-side ILB under Fangio, Anthony could be beastly.
If some added bulk and two-gap principles allow the front three to occupy blockers, there’s no reason Fangio can’t exploit Anthony’s athleticism. Remember, Fangio relied on speedy linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in San Francisco.
In addition, Anthony has shown the ability to man up on tight ends in coverage, so he should be a three-down linebacker at the next level.
With Anthony, the Bears fill one of the biggest positions of need with an extreme athlete.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.