For the first time since Brian Urlacher was thrust into the No. 1 spot at middle linebacker in early 2000, a genuine position battle is underway at middle linebacker even with the start of training camp still six weeks distant.
Jon Bostic and D.J. Williams are now splitting time as the No. 1 middle linebacker, with Bostic making a strong impression even in non-contact OTA sessions, sources told CSNChicago.com. Put another way, Williams is not a “given” as the No. 1 this year.
Positions are not really won or lost until training camp and even then not without some strong showings in preseason games. But Bostic has significantly raised the stakes despite training camp not starting until late July, and he’s doing it not necessarily where he was expected to truly compete for a starting job.
Bostic was expected to compete primarily with Shea McClellin for the No. 1 strong-side linebacker job. But Bostic said last week that he has been positioned at all three spots.
Teammates confirmed that McClellin’s play at his new position has been excellent. And Bostic is generally considered to have the most pure explosive, sudden speed of all the linebackers. Factor those elements in and the Bears could very conceivably open 2014 with their No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks from Phil Emery’s first two drafts starting.
Stretching the hypothetical a little further: Lance Briggs has been a fixture as one of the nickel linebackers, and is the only linebacker with a guaranteed position going into this offseason. But at 33 (34 in November), Briggs is not the speed linebacker he was when he and Urlacher never left the field, even in dime packages.
McClellin has worked in coverage at Boise State and Bostic’s speed and quickness lend themselves to dropping into coverage. That Bostic and McClellin could be three-down linebackers by Week 1 or at some point this season and beyond can’t be ruled out.
When the Bears notified Urlacher in March 2013 that they were parting ways with their longtime franchise middle linebacker, then signed Williams two days later, the decision on a starting middle linebacker for 2013 was effectively made. When they drafted Bostic a month later, Williams was the unquestioned starter even as he missed virtually all of training camp and preseason.
When Williams re-signed this March, an assumption was that the veteran was again a given as the starting middle linebacker despite missing the last 10 games last season with a torn pectoral muscle – that in addition to the fact that Bostic had not particularly distinguished himself as Williams’ 2013 replacement.
That assumption is on hold.