This is part two of an eight part series that takes a look at the Chicago Bears, and what work needs to be done for the team to improve upon their 8-8 record in 2013. It will examine each and ever aspect of the team, from defensive line to wide receivers, to find out what the team can do to keep up with the powerhouses forming in the NFC. Each week, a new article will be released, focusing on a different area of the team. This is Part II: Linebackers.
In 2013, linebacker Jonathan Bostic was only supposed to see limited time at the linebacker position for the Chicago Bears. He was drafted in the second round (50th overall pick), but coaches expected him to have a heavier role in special teams as opposed to the linebacker position, simply because veteran DJ Williams had just been signed by the team. Then, when Williams got placed on the Injured Reserve just six games into the season with a torn pectoral muscle, it was Bostic who was called upon to run the defense and be a leader. Needless to say, there were some transitional problems for both Bostic and the Bears.
Being a middle linebacker in the NFL isn't something that comes easily to anyone. It takes hard work, dedication and - to be brutally honest - experience is pretty much needed for success. That's why it was such big news when the Bears decided to name Bostic the starter for the rest of the season after Williams went down. He saw his share of struggles on the field, but Bostic seemed to be one of the most promising players on the defensive side of the ball after the season. That being said, the rest of the core wasn't as promising. If the Bears want to be contenders in 2014, then there are a few steps they'll need to take on defense - particularly in the linebacking core - to get there.
1) Re-sign DJ Williams. Williams is a ten year veteran of the NFL, although he's only taken the field six times as a member of Chicago Bears. He was signed to a one-year deal last off-season, after eight time Pro-Bowler and Chicago Bears legend Brian Urlacher decided to step away from the game. Then the plans to have Williams start at MLB and train the rookie Bostic went south after Williams went on IR, and Bostic was forced to step up to the plate. Now, the Bears have a great chance to get Williams back at a cheap price, and they can finally have the Williams/Bostic combo across the middle of the field that they were hoping would work in 2013.
Some might say that Williams is too old, and that after ten years at the linebacker spot he is going to start losing his competitive edge soon. This scenario with Chicago, however, could be just what both sides need. Williams will be looking to return to the field, and he knows the Bears are looking for a middle linebacker. Conversely, the Bears know that Williams will be looking for a relatively short and cheap deal to show that he can still play in the NFL, even after a pectoral tear at age 31. Either way, both sides know a deal can get done. Despite only playing six games last season, Williams managed to get two sacks before suffering his injury. Bostic, his replacement, only got one sack the entire rest of the season. Williams also forced a fumble and got 28 combined tackles in those six games. The team already has a young talent that they feel can be the future, now they just need to help him develop his skills with a veteran player ahead of him.
2) Cut back on number of snaps for Lance Briggs. Much like DJ Williams, Briggs had some hype surrounding him coming into the 2013 season. He was playing without Brian Urlacher next to him for the first time in his professional career, and he was expected to be the new leader of the defense. Also much like Williams, injuries had a heavy role in a disappointing season this year for Briggs. Before his injury-riddled 2013 campaign, the least amount of games Briggs ever played in an NFL season was 14, back in 2007. He appeared in just nine games in 2013. Briggs also hadn't gone since 2007 without getting at least one interception in a season. He got zero in 2013. This goes without saying, but Briggs had a disappointing year in 2013.
What reason could there be for returning a player who will be 34 next season and is coming off the worst season of his professional career? Simple, it's Lance Briggs. He has a ton of experience on the field, and knows how to conduct himself away from it. He's played in the NFL since 2003, and every season has been with the Bears. If for nothing else, keep Briggs to help train those below him, much like Williams would be doing. Yes, Briggs is set to count for $6.5 million against the salary cap for the Bears this season, but his experience and leadership with the team are second to none. Not to mention the fact that the Bears have more than a few options of players that can learn from him, like Shea McClellin (who may more to linebacker this season) and Khaseem Greene. At this point, cutting Briggs would be more of a hassle and mess than keeping him, and hoping that he can help his replacement be as dominant as he was.
3) Stop thinking about it and move McClellin to OLB already. Briefly touched on in Part I of the Fixing the Chicago Bears series was how Shea McClellin can no longer help the team at the defensive line position. That doesn't mean he should be cut, though. Yes, McClellin was destined for the wrong position the second the Bears said he was going to be a defensive end. At 6'3" and 260 lbs, McClellin simply can't win a battle down low against an offensive lineman. He can, however, help the team tremendously at a position they desperately need help in, outside linebacker. With Briggs getting old and nobody to play on the other side, the Bears need to move McClellin to outside backer and begin training him at his new position as soon as possible.
McClellin has only gotten 6.5 career sacks in two seasons on the defensive line, a number he can improve upon drastically as a blitzing outside linebacker next season. He can also use his best attribute, his speed, to keep up with receivers trying to get a dump-off pass in the flat. Not to mention, his speed would be a huge help if he were to get an interception and try running it back for six points. At this point, it almost seems too simple of a solution for Chicago. It's either move him to linebacker and see if he can help the team win games, or cut him like fellow former first-round pick Chris Williams.
4) Keep Jon Bostic at middle linebacker, at least for a little while longer. McClellin got two years on the defensive line before Phil Emery admitted it may have been a mistake keeping him there. Why shouldn't Bostic get another crack at the MLB spot? Let's face it, DJ Williams is not a long-term solution. He can help the team for about 4 more years before his body gives out - if that. That means the Bears need to do with Bostic this season what they were planning to do with him in 2013 - limited action in games. Teams are going to run the ball up the gut every play of every game if they see Bostic standing alone in the middle of the field like they did this season. When opponents average over 160 yards per game on the ground and opposing quarterbacks exit a game without being hit once, the linebacking core needs to be seriously looked at.
That's why the Bears need to take the time to teach Bostic this season, something they couldn't do when he was thrust into a starting role six games into the season this year. With new coach Reggie Herring in charge of the linebackers now, Bostic could finally get the attention and practice he needs to become a hard-hitting defensive player in the NFL. If he can improve upon his middle of the field coverage and quickness to crack-down on run plays, Bostic will be a Pro-Bowl player by the end of his career.
That's it for this week's edition of Fixing the Chicago Bears. Be sure to look for next week's edition, when I examine the secondary in Chicago and what improvements need to be made. As always, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@AlexCrowe38) and our new team-specific account (@spot_bears) for all the latest updates on the Chicago Bears.