A year after dealing with Brian Urlacher’s knee problems, the Bears begin their second straight camp with an Urlacher question overhanging the entire difference. It’s not the same question but this one is arguably of greater magnitude than last year’s.
More on that shortly.
Training camp in 2012 began under a cloud with the uncertain state of Urlacher’s injured knee. That issue was resolved, at least in part, with Urlacher starting on Opening Day and playing until a season-ending (career-ending, as it turned out) hamstring injury in the Seattle game.
The debates swirled over whether Urlacher was remotely close to the player he once was, or even whether he was good enough to be a starting NFL middle linebacker, period.
He was certainly the latter. Urlacher started 12 games and at the time of his injury, the Bears ranked top 10 in points allowed and both rushing and passing yards allowed.
But Nick Roach left for a multi-year deal to become the middle linebacker for the Oakland Raiders and Urlacher “left” after turning down a Bears offer of one year for $2 million.
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While the offensive line may have undergone the most numerous and most visible changes (starting tackle, starting guard, No. 1 draft choice), a greater percentage of starting positions were changed at linebacker, and they may not be done yet. D.J. Williams was brought in from Denver to address the “Mike” void, and James Anderson takes over for Roach at the “Sam” spot.
But both Anderson and Williams are veterans and signed to one-year deals. And the Bears went aggressively after linebackers in the draft, with Jon Bostic out of Florida on the second-round pick, and Rutgers’ Khaseem Greene with the fourth-round pick (they had no No. 3).
The team has four projected “starters” for two spots. This was a position group to watch throughout 2012 and already is in 2013.
Issue No. 1: “Replacing” Brian Urlacher
One of the reasons the Bears stayed at or near double-digit wins the past three seasons (it would be three but for Jay Cutler’s thumb) has been not only the defense overall, but also because they did not lose significant players that they wanted to keep.
The changed this offseason with the loss of Urlacher, who was the best middle linebacker on the roster regardless of age. Roach was the best strong-side linebacker on the roster. Now:
Anderson, Bostic, Greene, Williams.
“We’ve got our system in place, we’ve got a lot of reps and got guys a lot of turns in there, and so it’s just a daily process and we’re taking it one day at a time,” new coordinator Mel Tucker said. “I’m encouraged where we are with this group.”
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For the better part of a decade beginning about 30 years ago it was the Bears’ custom to restock at linebacker using second-round draft choices: Mike Singletary (1981), Ron Rivera (1984), Dante Jones (1988), John Roper (1989), Ron Cox (1990).
The organization went back to that well for Bostic, and Bostic projects as the true key to the success of the ’13 draft. The ability of the middle linebacker to provide quality coverage in the Bears’ scheme is critical. Urlacher brought that, and with the Bears staying with the same core concepts under Tucker, the Bears need Bostic, from a speed defense at Florida, to be the future long term.
Short-term is a different matter. Lance Briggs collected 100 tackles (128) for the ninth time in his career. He is set up as the man in charge in the huddle, getting the call from the sideline and overseeing positioning before the play.
A problem with that is that Briggs as the weak-side linebacker can be in any number of spots, nor all of which give him the view of the defense, and offense, that the middle linebacker has.