2014 Bears outlook: Linebackers

2014 Bears outlook: Linebackers
February 5, 2014, 1:45 pm
Share This Post

This is the third in a series looking back at the Bears' 2013 season, by position. Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin is breaking down where each position group succeeded and failed this past season, where it needs to get better and how the personnel may look different next season after free agency.

Overview: The organization quietly addressed a need area last draft when general manager Phil Emery committed two of the Bears’ first three draft choices to linebackers even after signing James Anderson and D.J. Williams to one-year contracts. Before Brian Urlacher had officially retired. And long before it was decided that Shea McClellin was miscast as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end.

Injuries to Williams and Lance Briggs vaulted Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene into the starting lineup, and they played like rookies parachuted into starting in the middle of the season behind a crumbling defensive line, which they were. But the situation gave both Bostic and Greene on-the-job experience that is nothing but a positive going forward.

2013: The Chicago defense allowed 102 yards per in the first six games, when Williams was in the middle and Briggs at his usual weakside spot. The defense allowed more than 125 yards just once in those six games; it allowed fewer than 145 yards just once in the 10 games without Williams, including seven without Briggs as well.

“We were able to be creative because of the people that we had on the field,” Emery said. “We created pressure with our linebackers and changed it up…because of who we had on the field. We had weapons.”

[MORE: Bears brass can follow Seahawks' championship template]

How many of the ’13 problems were the defensive line, riddled with its own brace of injuries, and how much was on the linebackers, specifically Bostic and Greene, is moot at this point. But it underscored the importance of linebacker play in run support through gap integrity in a one-gap scheme in which each member of the front seven has responsibility for a gap.

Looking ahead: Anderson, Williams

Questions to be settled this offseason and on into training camp start with where people will play. McClellin is a hybrid player and ultimately projects as an intriguing ‘tweener, sometimes a strongside linebacker, sometimes as pass rusher, always mobile.

When Williams was injured, both in training camp and mid-season, Bostic was pressed into service at middle linebacker, which he was at Florida. But he is a speed player rather than a physical inside force and the Bears have not ruled him out as an outside player, although Briggs and Greene currently stack up on the weakside.

[RELATED: Are the Bears light years away from a championship?]

“[Bostic] is a hit-and-run player in terms of the guy can really cover ground,” Emery said. “He’s very dynamic in his speed, and he’s very dynamic in his ability to hit and the physicalness and the impact of it. I said…that he’s second in our group in terms of guys that can unload on another player in space and produce an impact tackle or an impact hit. That’s best when you’re coming from the outside coming downhill across the field or the backside of a formation.”

Strategies: Emery was explicit on the Bears becoming younger on defense and nowhere is that more of an issue than at linebacker.

Anderson, turning 31 in September, played the most snaps (1,013) of any member of the front seven and was a 16-game starter at strong-side. But only Bostic and McClellin had worse grades, according to analyses by ProFootballFocus.com, despite Anderson’s leading the team in tackles and tying for second in sacks (four). Williams has missed 19 of the last 32 regular-season games.

Both Anderson and Williams are 30-plus. With Bostic, Greene and McClellin in the pipeline, and Briggs, 33, in place, retaining both Anderson and Williams at even veteran minimums appears unlikely.

Emery’s praise for Bostic’s range, coupled with Briggs’ seven missed games due to a fractured shoulder, raises the specter of the Bears going in a different direction at outside linebacker. But Briggs’ injury was not age-related and he had missed just four games in the previous 10 years, making him the kind of quality veteran to have during a transition period.

The Bears will not pass an elite-grade player in the draft but with the needs at defensive end, tackle and secondary, the pipeline at linebacker reduces the urgency to expend draft capital at the position.

2014 Position Outlook Series

Part 1: Defensive Line 

Part 2: Quarterback

Part 3: Linebackers

Part 4: Receivers

Part 5: Offensive Line

Part 6: Defensive backs

Part 7: Running backs