The Chicago Bears are currently on a one-day break from training camp following three straight padded practices. Within those first three days, head coach John Fox has made in distinctively clear that he wants both offensive and defensive units to be physical.
With a new coaching staff has brought many changes and adjustments but the defense is seeing a complete new approach moving from a 4-3 one-gap front to a 3-4 two-gap front. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has his hands full as the team transitions and develops players originally cut out to play the team’s old 4-3 front.
One of the more intriguing positions that will see a major overhaul is the inside linebacker position.
The team still has three holdovers from last year including Jon Bostic, Christian Jones and 2012 first-round pick Shea McClellin – who is going on his third new position in as many years. New general manager Ryan Pace also opted to add former Tampa Bay Buccaneers thumper Mason Foster for more competition at one of the two starting inside spots.
So far, it has been a steady mix of playing time for all four names but Bostic has been slow recovering from what he finally admitted to being more than just a back injury, including shin and hip issues as well, which held him out of OTAs and minicamp this off-season.
The former third-round pick from the University of Washington will be going into his first year with the team and his first professional year in a 3-4 front. It’s worth noting the 26-year-old did spend time in a similar front used by his college defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who is now defensive backs coach for the Bears.
“Coach Donatell is a great coach, one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for,” Foster told Bear Report. “He’s a good guy. He helped me kind of grow up. I was only 19 and I was able to learn a lot from him, so it’s good to be back with him.”
Foster’s best stretch came in the first three years of his career in Tampa Bay where he averaged 94 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions per year under former head coach Greg Schiano. Last year’s transition brought in former Bears head coach Lovie Smith, a Cover 2 system in which Foster simply did not fit.
Foster has always graded out well against the run and is known for being a big hitter more than a sideline-to-sideline type, which is why he looks like a good fit in a 3-4 scheme.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been playing both [the MIKE and JACK positions],” said Foster. “Just going back and forth so, it helps you out a lot knowing both roles but it’s no big deal since they both go hand-in-hand, so either is good."
Foster signed a one-year prove-it deal with the Bears, which is just fine for a player still trying to prove himself following his rookie contract.
“You want a deal like that,” he said. “I got drafted in the third round and things didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, so this is a way for me to prove myself.”
With previous general manager Phil Emery gone for good, Shea McClellin could be playing his last year with the Bears. He’s going on his third position in as many years and has yet to play at the level expected of him when he was drafted 20th overall four years ago.
During mini-camps and OTAs, McClellin saw the majority of snaps as one of the two starting inside linebackers. With more competition and the pads strapped on, McClellin must show physicality, toughness and the ability to fight off blocks if he’s to retain his role on the first team.
Pace has already declined his fifth-year option but that does not necessarily close the door to re-sign him if he does perform well under the new scheme.
The former Florida Gator is going into his third year and has not come close to living up to his second-round status. Injuries and a lack of quality coaching have played a role in Bostic’s lack of success but his biggest issue continues to be his lack of overall instincts, namely his poor gap control.
He often looks confused, whether he is in coverage or is defending the run, and through the first days of camp, it does not appear that much has changed. He did make a few plays yesterday, which is a good sign and something he must do during the preseason if he wants his starting gig back.
Last year, Jones was signed as a priority undrafted free agent after red flags dropped him from a projected third round status. In his rookie year, the versatile linebacker showed promise with 69 official tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup. He had his rough spots but overall, Jones’ versatility should enable him to adjust to this new scheme very well and could best be suited for the JACK role, in which he would both rush the passer and be expected to drop back into coverage.
Under Fangio, Jones should have a much more prominent role and will be able to work to his strengths, including his size at 6-4. Jones has the experience to play either inside position and has also been featured as a pass rusher during his days at Florida State.
Overall, the team has the most talent and youth they’ve had at the position since Brian Urlacher’s departure and it could bode well for Fangio’s unit in 2015, assuming it clicks for at least two of them.
With improvement expected after the past two years – and yes, the bar was set very low – it’s a safe bet the competition currently ongoing in training camp will breed more success. The question remains, how much success and will it be good enough?
Aaron Leming has years of salary cap knowledge and has written for Rant Sports, Bears Draft On Tap, and Cover 32. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report.