The Chicago Bears are known for strong play at middle linebacker. Names like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher are the faces of the franchise, the players for whom most long-standing fans hold the most admiration.
Yet since Urlacher’s retirement in 2012, the inside linebackers in Chicago have been anything but special. In fact, it can be argued that the linebackers have been the weakest position group of the past two seasons.
Fortunately for this unit, change is upon us. Gone is the historic 4-3 defense of Bears past, replaced by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 front. The change in scheme also changes the structure and composition of the linebacker position.
Moving from three to four linebackers adds another inside linebacker to the mix, while drastically changing the role of the outside linebackers. That can only be viewed as a good thing, as it gives hope to all of the guys who struggled in the former 4-3. It’s possible a system change is all they needed.
Any way you slice it, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the inside linebackers in Chicago.
Let’s break down the eight linebackers the Bears are bringing to Bourbonnais for 2015 Training Camp to try and answer a few of the questions surrounding this position group.
It’s been a long, tough road for McClellin his first three years in the NFL.
After being drafted as a 4-3 defensive end, where he struggled, McClellin was moved to outside linebacker last season. He did not excel at his new position but McClellin definitely took steps in the right direction, particularly as a run defender. He still must improve at getting off block but his quickness in space was evident as a run stopper.
There’s a chance that in a 3-4, which may provide McClellin even more room to roam, he could develop even further against the run. In addition, he did very well as a blitzer last year, picking up seven QB hurries, three QB hits and a sack, per Pro Football Focus (PFF). That ability to press the A and B gaps in blitz packages could have a lot of value in Fangio’s system.
The key for McClellin will be hand usage, to help keep blockers at arm’s reach, and aggression, something he’s lacked on game days. Also, he must improve in coverage, where his continuous mental lapses have proved costly.
McClellin played in a 3-4 system at Boise State, so there’s a chance he might finally live up to his first-round status this year. But in reality, even Chicago’s coaching staff is unsure if he’s playing the correct position.
“I think he’s got a chance to be a good inside linebacker,” Fangio said this off-season. “We’re going to give him a full opportunity and full chance to learn the position so we can evaluate him and see if that’s a good spot for him. You know, when he came out of college he was a versatile guy, he played a lot of different positions and maybe now it’s time to lock him down into hopefully an inside linebacker spot.”
If it’s clear during training camp and the preseason that inside linebacker is a bad fit, don’t be surprised if Fangio moves McClellin to outside linebacker, where he spent most of his time in college.
“If it doesn’t work out, maybe we move him back outside,” said Fangio, “but I want to see him at inside linebacker for a while.”
McClellin was working at ILB with the first team throughout off-season activities and will be given every opportunity to keep that spot during the preseason. If it doesn’t work out, he’ll likely switch positions again, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll be playing elsewhere next season.
According to stats compiled by the Bears’ coaching staff, Bostic led the team with 127 total tackles and five tackles for loss last season.
Yet there are many reasons to question whether or not Bostic is one of the club’s ILBs of the future. The first is health.
Last season he missed Weeks 6-9 due to a back injury that limited him in practice the remainder of the campaign. This off-season, he’s yet to take the practice field due to an undisclosed injury, which most assume is his back – he wasn’t wearing a visible brace or cast, nor did he do any on-field individual work with the trainers.
With a new system being installed, Bostic must soon get on the field if he has any hope of securing a starting role. That will be easier said than done, as Bostic has many hurdles to overcome.
The first is a lack of vision against the run. He’s extremely hesitant attacking the run and fills wrong holes far too often. He’s strong and fast, and can lay the lumber, but Bostic must learn how to see the whole field if he’s ever going to be a shut-down run stopper.
Second, he’s borderline clueless in pass defense. Again, he’s athletic enough and quick enough to get the job done in coverage but he often looks lost on the field.
Those fundamental issues are cause for concern and have been exacerbated by his absence this off-season. If Bostic doesn’t soon get on the field, he may get left behind in the race for a starting gig, or possibly even a roster spot.
Jones was signed as an undrafted free agent last year and played 443 snaps his rookie season, per PFF, at both SAM and WILL linebacker. According to Chicago’s coaching staff, he finished with 98 total tackles in 2014, third most on the team, while adding 2.0 sacks and a fumble recovery.
Jones was considered a mid-round prospect before a failed drug test at last year’s scouting combined knocked him out of the draft. As a rookie, he showed why some felt he was worth a second-round pick based on talent alone.
Jones has been working alongside McClellin with the starting unit this off-season and has a prime opportunity to work his way onto the Week 1 starting roster.
One thing going for Jones is his size. He’s the same height as Urlacher (6-4) and can use that length to be a disruptive force in the middle of the field against the pass. He also added 10 pounds of muscle this off-season. Listed at 240, he’s currently hovering in the low 250s, which should help him plug holes with more authority.
In addition, Jones has experience rushing the passer, having played a 4-3 defensive end his senior year at Florida State. We saw glimpses of his blitz ability last year, an area of his game he could take to the next level in a 3-4 system.
A strong preseason and training camp will lock down a starting gig for the second-year linebacker.
Foster was signed to a one-year, veteran-minimum deal this off-season after spending his first four years in Tampa’s 4-3 defense. Like Bostic and Jones, he’s learning a new position in a new system.
A former third-round draft pick, Foster started 54 games for the Buccaneers with tackle totals of 84, 105 and 92 his first three seasons. In four years he accumulated 6.0 sacks, five interceptions – two of which he returned for touchdowns – and two forced fumbles.
Consistency has been his biggest issue and he’s also coming off a dislocated shoulder that cost him six games last season. Foster is just 26 years old and still has upside but he’s been an average linebacker to this point in his career.
He’s worked mainly with the second team this off-season and will need to work his way up the depth chart for starter reps. Foster will compete with Bostic, Jones and McClellin in what should be a heated training camp battle for the two starting ILB gigs.
Lattimore was signed last year as an undrafted free agent and spent time on the practice squad before being called up to the active roster on Oct. 12. He was active for the final five contests of 2014, picking up five special teams tackles, per Bears coaches.
Lattimore is undersized (6-1, 237) but he’s quick and plays with aggression. If he were two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier, he could challenge for starter reps. As it is, Lattimore is fifth on the depth chart and was working with the second team during OTAs.
He’ll need a strong camp and preseason to earn one of the final roster spots as a special-teams ace.
Jonathan Anderson, Jonathan Brown, John Timu
Timu and Anderson are undrafted rookies, while Brown is a second-year player out of Illinois. Of the three, Timu is worth a long look for a special-teams or practice-squad role.
Timu was a two-time captain and team leader for Washington. He’s instinctive and plays with power, while also excelling in zone coverage. He’s slightly undersized (6-1, 246) but he plays much bigger.
If Timu shines in the preseason, he could snag one of the last roster spots and is a strong candidate for the practice squad.
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- Camp Preview: Defensive Line
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- Camp Preview: Offensive Line
- Camp Battle: Ball vs. McManis
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.