Coming into the season this wasn’t expected to be a battle with veteran MLB D.J. Williams signed to another 1-yr contract. Williams started last season as the Bears MLB and played pretty well the first four weeks of the season (1.7 grade) before a pectoral injury affected his play and ultimately ended his season after week 6. There was some competition last preseason from rookie 2nd round pick Jon Bostic, but Bostic got his chance when Williams went down and proved that he wasn’t ready (-14.7).
What most fans forget is that young players usually make their biggest leap between their 1st and 2nd year and based on how Bostic has looked this off-season he is ready to compete for the starting position. DC Mel Tucker has simplified the MLB responsibilities this year as he puts his stamp on the Bears defensive scheme. Bostic has shined so far in camp, but it’s early still and the pads aren’t on yet. Here is a breakdown of the Bears top two options at MLB:
A 10-year veteran who played most of his career for the Broncos and started all but 6 games over his first 9 seasons in Denver. Williams had a couple of 100+ tackle seasons including 141 in 2007, which was 2nd in the NFL. In 2012 Williams suffered the first serious injury of his NFL career and got in some off-field trouble (DUI) while sidelined. The combination of his injury, off-field issues, his cap number and a new coaching staff gave the Broncos enough reason to cut Williams loose after 9 solid years as a starting linebacker. The Bears brought him on for a reasonable 1-yr deal and he was a solid presence in the middle of the field before a pectoral injury. He’s not young anymore (32) but he has been a solid player in the league for a long time and appeared to still have some burst last year. Besides experience his other unique trait is the ability to blitz effectively up the middle. Williams had 2 sacks in his 4 starts last year and showed excellent timing on blitzes.
The Bears will be integrating plenty of new pieces into their defensive starting lineup this year and with possibly as many as 6 new starters on that side of the ball it makes sense to have a veteran presence in the middle of the defense. Lance Briggs will be around to handle the play calls, but with so many new faces an experienced vet like Williams has value in the middle. Williams struggled his last two games in 2013 but he was fighting through an injury and played well the first 4 weeks when healthy. The Bears need to fix their defense from last year and a solid player like Williams could provide some consistency in the middle and help whichever inexperienced option (McClellin or Greene) is starting on his right at SLB.
Bostic started out with a bang his rookie season; He had a monster hit on Chargers receiver Mike Willie (above) and a pick-6 in his next preseason game. He was so impressive in the preseason that many fans were calling for him to start the season as the Bears 1st string MLB. The coaching staff made the right decision to start the veteran Williams because when Bostic did get a chance to play after Williams’ injury, he proved that he wasn’t quite ready for the starting job. In his defense, he didn’t have much of a chance to succeed playing behind the worst DTs in the NFL. Due to a rash of injuries the Bears were bringing guys in off the street to man the middle of the line, arguably the most important position in the Bears scheme. Bostic really struggled in run defense (-14), but with the milquetoast DTs he had in front of him, I’m not sure anyone would have had success. He was consistently smothered by interior O-lineman and had trouble shedding blocks and finding the football. The rest of Bostic’s game was pretty solid for a rookie. He showed some inexperience in coverage, but improved as the season went on and actually finished with a positive coverage grade for the season (1.5). I am intrigued to see what Bostic can do with a better interior D-line keeping blockers off of him because he looked like an explosive play-maker playing behind a healthy Paea & Melton in the preseason.
DC Mel Tucker has also simplified the responsibilities of the MLB position and it is allowing Bostic to use his instincts and not over think his job. With defensive captain Lance Briggs healthy and back in the lineup, Bostic doesn’t have to worry about calling the plays or calling audibles at the line of scrimmage, he can just do his job and use his elite athleticism to make plays. Bostic has drawn rave reviews so far in OTAs and with actual NFL talent in front of him, a year of experience under his belt, and a defensive scheme that plays to his strengths… Bostic could have a break out season.
Projected Winner: Jon Bostic
DJ Williams has missed 19 games with injuries over the last two seasons, so the odds of him staying healthy over the course of a season playing starter minutes at 32 years old are slim. If Bostic is going to end up as the starter post Williams injury, they might as well speed up his development by putting him in the lineup week 1. Bostic has shown enough to at least be in consideration as the Bears future MLB, so why wait? Few MLBs would have been able to succeed last year playing behind Landon Cohen, Zach Minter, and some of the other bums the Bears had at DT before the Ratliff signing late in the season. Bostic showed potential in coverage and as a pass rusher, but his strength in college was stopping the run. With a respectable D-line in front of him, I think we’ll see the explosive play-maker we saw glimpses of last preseason. Williams is a solid and safe option, but if the Bears want to get back to being a dominant defense, they need their best athletes with the most upside on the field and at MLB that is Bostic.