Once upon a time, the Chicago Bears had the most feared linebackers in the NFL. From Bill George to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher, the Monsters of the Midway have always housed the game's premiere linebackers.
Yet since Urlacher's retirement, Chicago's interior linebackers have struggled to live up the high standards set forth by their predecessors. Due to a systemic change from a 4-3 to a 3-4, as well as the overall inexperience at the position, 2015 was no different.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the play of the Bears inside linebackers last season.
Since he was selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, McClellin has been moved around more than an Army family. After failing to meet expectations as both a defensive end and a 4-3 outside linebacker, new coordinator Vic Fangio shifted McClellin to inside linebacker in his hybrid 3-4 defense.
By all accounts, 2015 was McClellin's most productive season in Chicago, playing the same position he did in college at Boise State. In 12 games, he accumulated 81 tackles, second most on the team, 1 forced fumble and 1 pass breakup. By comparison, in 12 games as an outside linebacker in 2014, he had just 36 tackles and no forced fumbles. He also had success as a blitzer, picking up 12 QB hurries and 2 QB hits.
Unfortunately, the problems that have plagued McClellin throughout his career also existed this season, mainly a lack of aggression against the run and an inability to shed blocks. He also missed 10 tackles, which led all Bears inside linebackers by a large margin.
He also struggled mightily in coverage. He was targeted 50 times and allowed 41 receptions, for a team-high 82-percent catch percentage against, while opposing quarterbacks had a 115.2 QB rating when throwing at McClellin.
A knee injury played a large role in his reduced range as a pass defender and cost him four games, while limiting for most of the second half of the season.
Like McClellin, Jones was playing a position he had never before played in the NFL and he struggled accordingly.
Jones did not show power at the point of attack and was hesitant in his run fits, making far too many plays five yards beyond the line of scrimmage instead of in the backfield. The biggest problem was that Jones didn't improve as a run defender and he was a healthy scratch in Week 15 against the Vikings.
On the flip side, Jones was solid in coverage. His 68.2 completion percentage against was the lowest among the team's linebackers, as was his 94.7 QB rating against. He also showed very good speed and quickness chasing down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. As a blitzer, he had 5 QB hits, which was the most at his position, as well as a sack.
By mid-season, Fangio began substituting for McClellin on passing downs and inserting Anderson. In 317 snaps, Anderson compiled 36 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 pass breakups and 1 interception. He had a second interception called back due to penalty.
A UDFA out of TCU, Anderson is smaller than a typical 3-4 inside linebacker (6-1, 230) and it showed in his run defense. He had 5 missed tackles on the season, which was one more than Jones in 436 fewer snaps.
After two-plus years in Jacksonville, the Jaguars cut Reynolds after the first two games of the regular season. He was immediately signed by the Bears and was a core special teams player for 13 games.
Reynolds even started the Week 8 contest against the Vikings, although the results were less than ideal. He didn't see another snap on defense until Week 16. As a defender, he lacks ideal vision and awareness but his skill set is valuable on special teams.
After a stellar preseason, Timu, an undrafted free agent out of Washington, made the team coming out of training camp and served on special teams for the first month of the regular season. He was then sent down to the practice squad, where he stayed until being called back up to the active roster in Week 15.
Timu then made his presence felt as a starter the final three games of the year, showing a high level of physicality in defending the run. He displayed the ability to track defenders and shed blocks, while filling gaps with authority. In three games as a starter, he was by far the team's best run defender.
While his size and aggressiveness are impressive, Timu lacks NFL level speed. As a result, he was torched in coverage, allowing 8 receptions on 10 targets, at 14.5 yards per catch. Timu is a solid part-time defender but his lack of quickness limits him as a three-down linebacker.
Wipe the slate clean.
The McClellin experiment should be over. It wasn't his fault he was drafted ahead of Chandler Jones, so you can't blame him for being a first-round bust, as he never should have been drafted that high in the first place. Yet he's played three different positions in four years and we're still waiting for him to make a substantial impact. If a guy can't shed a block, it really doesn't matter where you line him up. It's time to move on.
Jones showed flashes of potential but his regression as the season progressed was troubling. He might be better off rushing from outside linebacker, like he did his senior year at FSU.
Anderson and Reynolds are special teams players, not starters. Timu deserves another invite to training camp and has value on run downs but his limitations in coverage will hurt the Bears if he's on the field on passing downs.
In reality, the Bears need to start over at inside linebacker, which is easily the biggest position of need heading into the off-season. Don't be surprised if the Bears aggressively pursue the top veteran ILBs in free agency, while also spending a high draft pick on the position.
If Chicago's defense is going to take another step forward under Fangio in 2016, two elite, downhill linebackers are a must.