Bears camping out ’14: Who will be odd man out among LBs?

Bears camping out ’14: Who will be odd man out among LBs?
July 21, 2014, 10:30 am
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Bears Insider John ‘Moon’ Mullin’ is getting you ready for Bears Training Camp, with previews of each position leading up to the day the Bears report to Bourbonnais.

No other position group will command the level of attention that the linebackers will when training camp opens in July. And for good reason. Or reasons.

Two of three starting jobs are unsettled, early offseason indicators notwithstanding. Even when the depth chart sorts itself out, the bigger second question is whether the emerging starter is in fact good enough to win because of in the NFL. The 2013 season wasn’t necessarily encouraging.

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Shea McClellin struggled through two lackluster years at defensive end, with an occasional pass-drop on his resume. When the Bears used their second-round pick on Florida linebacker Jonathan Bostic in 2013, the plan was for him to emerge as a starter, which he did when D.J. Williams went down with a season-ending chest injury five games into the year.

The fourth-round pick of Khaseem Greene was another “pipeline” step, putting youth behind Lance Briggs at weak-side linebacker but also at more than one spot. Like Bostic, Greene was catapulted into the starting lineup as of the Washington game when Briggs was injured.

An overarching consideration was the problems playing out on the defensive line, which put both Bostic and Greene under heavy pressure. Their responses were not up to the level needed, although it is very questionable whether last season could be considered a referendum on the young linebackers, particularly Bostic.

Offseason adjustments

The biggest move came with the reassignment of McClellin to the linebacker’s corps, complete with a change from No. 99 to 50. The change takes his hand off the ground and returns him to the multi-role situation that was part of his success at Boise State.

Bostic was worked at all three linebacker spots, effectively competing with both McClellin and Williams through OTA’s and minicamps, but was settling primarily at middle linebacker. The Bears re-signed Williams and established what was de facto a head-to-head position competition between the veteran and the new kid.

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But along with the position changes was the coaching switch from Tim Tibesar to Reggie Herring, with the latter’s experience in the NFL. Tibesar’s background was exclusively college and CFL (with Marc Trestman in Montreal) and the expectation is a better developmental curve for three players in particular who project as important parts of the future on defense.

Herring has been emphatic in his endorsements of what he has seen from Bostic and McClellin, bringing some clarity to the latter’s job description.

“Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic could’ve started for me at Dallas and Houston as [4-3] inside linebackers,” Herring said. “I don’t know what they’ll be doing in five years. They’re linebackers. They aren’t anything else.”

He will not challenge immediately for one of the starting jobs but undrafted free agent Christian Jones from Florida State turned heads enough to be signed and adds a 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker with speed and size. A name to remember.

Bostic, McClellin and Williams had strikingly similar numbers of snaps with the No. 1’s through the offseason. Bostic emerged with an edge at MLB in nickel packages and Williams the better with run personnel.

Training camp will answer…

…who ultimately plays where. The Bears see themselves as having four “starters,” beginning with Briggs as the only one with a set position. McClellin had the preponderance of time at strong-side linebacker in both nickel and standard packages, and Bostic took snaps everywhere And Williams was re-signed to be in the mix for the No. 1 MLB job, not play special teams.

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“After about the second week [of camp], we’ll settle in,” Herring said. “There’s a time for it, a process, but they’re all interchangeable.

“D.J. could start at ‘Mike’ ‘backer. Lance obviously is a player and then Shea can start or ‘Sam’ or ‘Mike.’ That is what has happened through this process. We are developing confidence, they are developing confidence, we’re building depth. We’ve got to continue this through training camp.

“I would say this, with his experience right now, [Williams] would be a guy we would feel comfortable with as a starter at Mike. But we also would feel comfortable with Bostic as a starter at ‘Will,’ Mike or Sam. And we would feel comfortable with Shea being a starter at Sam or Mike and then we have Lance who plays the will position.”

Bostic the nickel MLB and Williams the “standard” MLB? Williams at MLB and Bostic at SLB with McClellin replacing Williams in nickel? All three in some packages? All of the above?

Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker promised creative changes. Those will start at linebacker.

…whether Shea McClellin can play. Every offseason indication is that he can, with quickness, speed and cover skills evident in ways they weren’t when he was a D-end.

He was blunt about his disappointing first two seasons and GM Phil Emery took some responsibility for the organization slotting the 2012 first-rounder in a wrong position. But the past is past and McClellin, who was an effective pass rusher at Boise and on occasion as a Bears end, gets an entirely fresh start as a mix of cover, blitz and point-of-attack linebacker.

“It’s a little bit of a change,” McClellin acknowledged. “I did it a lot in college and my whole career in high school. So the instincts are there and I’ve just to learn the concepts, the coaches and things like that.

“As a player you’re going to do what they tell you to and I was fine with playing D-end. They wanted me to rush the passer and I think one of my strengths is rushing the passer. I was fine with it.”

More Bears Camping Out '14:

— July 14: Offensive line
— July 15: Running backs
— July 16: Quarterbacks
— July 17: Wide receivers
— July 18: Special teams
— July 21: Linebackers
— July 22: Defensive backs
— July 23: Defensive line