With not a whole lot of Bears news to talk about until training camp begins, I’m going to breakdown the Bears depth chart at every position. I’ll give a high-level overview of each position, highlight potential battles for both starting roles and roster spots and point out a few players to watch.
I’ve already covered the depth chart at a few positions:
Today I will be covering the Bears depth chart at inside linebacker, which might be the most fun position to cover on the team after their additions in free agency and the draft. There are no battles for the starting position, but some interesting depth and roster battles that make the position one of the Bears deepest in 2016.
Depth Chart: Inside Linebacker
When the Bears moved from the 4-3 scheme they had been running seemingly forever to a hybrid 3-4 under new DC Vic Fangio, there were a lot of adjustments needed by the players on the roster and it wasn’t as obvious anywhere as it was at inside linebacker.
The Bears started five different inside linebackers in 2015 including four undrafted free agents and Shea McClellin who probably shouldn’t have been drafted either. There were only a few signs of potential talent at the position.
Jonathan Anderson showed the best instincts and aggression at ILB, attacking the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage, showing a knack for timing blitzes well, and was the Bears best coverage ILB by far.
Jonathan Timu was also an aggressive run stopper, who flashed an innate talent at reading plays early and meeting ball carriers at the line of scrimmage. He may have been the Bears best run stopper at ILB, but with 4.7-4.8 speed, Timu was picked on in coverage often.
Surprisingly enough, Anderson and Timu were the two best ILBs the Bears fielded last season. Two undrafted rookies were the only guys who were consistently aggressive and while Timu stuffed the run, Anderson was solid in coverage against backs and tight ends.
Unfortunately, for most of the season the Bears tried Christian Jones and Shea McClellin at ILB. Jones had shown promise as an OLB in a 4-3 scheme as an undrafted rookie in 2014. Jones has plenty of natural ability and was a projected 3rd round pick in a loaded 2014 draft, but went undrafted due to a failed drug test at the combine. It will be interesting to see how (if?) the Bears use Jones this year. At 6’4, 240 pounds with 4.6 speed, Jones still has plenty of potential but is without a position at the moment.
As for McClellin? He somehow hoodwinked the Patriots into signing him to a 3-year, $9M deal. Hopefully, the Pats are smart enough not to play McClellin at ILB unless they want to see more of this:
I should mention that a guy signed off the street by the Bears, LaRoy Reynolds, may have been the best overall ILB for the Bears but only started one game due to nagging injuries caused by his overly-aggressive playing style. I like Reynolds and hope he can stay healthy for a season, but it probably won’t be with the Bears.
Enough of the bad news, Bear fans most likely won’t see any of the ILBs mentioned above in the starting lineup this season after the Bears two most expensive free agent acquisitions both play inside linebacker. To credit GM Ryan Pace, he realized that ILB was a glaring weakness for the Bears and it’s also a key position in Vic Fangio’s scheme, so he went out and bought two of the best ILBs available in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman.
Fangio built a consistent top-five defense in San Francisco and at it’s core were ILBs Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Fangio requires more from his ILBs than most 3-4 schemes do. The OLBs are almost always tasked with rushing the QB or setting the edge against the run, which leaves almost all of the underneath coverage responsibilities to the ILBs. They also have to align the defense, stop the run, and occasionally blitz. It’s the most complex position in Fangio’s scheme and now the Bears have two players capable of playing it competently.
Nothing against undrafted rookies like Anderson and Timu, who were better than expected based on their draft pedigree, but Trevathan and Freeman are two of the best ILBs in the league. They also complement each other well as Trevathan plays the “Jack” position which requires more coverage skills and sideline to sideline run stopping ability, while Freeman plays the “Mike” which is more of a classic between the tackles thumper, but still requires the ability to cover running backs out of the backfield.
The Bears also traded up in the 4th round to select ILB Nick Kwiatkoski out of West Virginia, who is a well-rounded ILB in the Trevathan mold who can cover sideline-to-sideline, time blitzes well, read defenses, and as a former safety can excel in coverage. Barring injury, Kwiatkoski won’t see much of the field on defense, but is a big hitter who should excel on special teams and eventually take over for either Freeman or Trevathan when age slows then down. The Kwiatkoski pick will probably knock at least one ILB off the roster which I will cover later in my roster battle section.
Next: Position Battles