The Chicago Bears have been extremely aggressive in trying to upgrade their defensive line through free agency this offseason.
They have chosen the opposite approach, counting on in-house improvement, regarding the linebackers. The Bears’ defense ranked last in the league against the rush last year. They were also 25th of 32 teams in allowing 7.7 yards per pass attempt and tied for last with 30 sacks.
They parted ways with the weakest link of the unit, brought back most of the same players from last season and moved a defensive lineman to linebacker.
Will this unit be improved?
It should if the veterans remain healthy and fend off father time; if last year’s rookies prove their poor performance was the result of inexperience and not deficient talent; and former defensive end Shea McClellin re-acclimates to the linebacker position at which he dominated for Boise State before the Bears’ ill-fated decision to convert him to defensive end.
Since we documented the Bears’ free agent defensive line acquisitions earlier this week, they made perhaps their biggest splash to date when they signed former Minnesota Vikings’ and Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive end Jared Allen to a two-year deal with two one-year options. If Allen and previous signee Willie Young start at defensive end for the Bears, Lamarr Houston, who previously played end for the Raiders but weighs well over 300 pounds, could supplant Stephen Paea at the nose tackle position opposite defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff.
Paea, who is coming off a subpar and injury-plagued season, also could be jettisoned. Certainly, the Bears did not pay Houston $14.9 million guaranteed as part of a five-year deal to serve as a backup defensive end or tackle, and his performance the last two seasons merits being a cornerstone of the Bears’ revamped defensive front.
More on Jared Allen. For purposes of this article, we again rely on Pro Football Focus (PFF), a highly-reputable source which grades players on sub-categories such as pass rush and run stopping production before giving the players aggregate grades.
Bears’ fans might need to temper their excitement about Allen, 32, who earned a grade of -3.0, including -3.0 rushing the passer last season. He did earn a 1.6 grade against the run but ranked just 33rd of 52 4-3 defensive ends.
The Bears must receive the type of production from Allen that he gave Minnesota the previous three seasons when he ranked 25th of 62 ends with a 4.6 grade (2012); 5th of 67 with a 26.9 grade (2011); and 18th of 65 with a 9.1 grade (2010). Hopefully, last year was an anomaly and not the sign of a post-thirties decline in Allen’s production.
The more production that Allen and the defensive line provide rushing the passer and stopping the run at the point of attack, the more the linebackers can focus their attention on assisting with pass coverage and serving as the second line of defense against the running game.
Now let’s move on to the linebacking contingent.
Shea McClellin: 2012 first round selection Shea McClellin, 24 in August, who struggled immensely at defensive end, has been shifted to linebacker, probably the strong side (he played both there and middle line backer in college at Boise State). When he came out of college, scouts oozed at McClellin’s ability to play in space, attack the line of scrimmage in both the run and passing game and also move fluidly in pass coverage.
James Anderson: Anderson’s only season in Chicago was forgettable, culminating in his failure to pick up an Aaron Rodgers’ fumble in Game Sixteen against the Green Bay Packers with the division title on the line which the Packers recovered and returned for a touchdown in what likely was a fourteen point swing in a game the Bears lost 33-28. Of 35 4-3 outside linebackers, Anderson ranked 33rd, including last against the run (PFF grades linebackers in the subcategories of run defense, pass coverage and pass rushing).
D.J. Williams: MLB Williams, 32 in July, played in only six games before suffering a season-ending chest injury but was re-signed. While he did not qualify for PFF’s MLB rankings, he received a grade of -3.1. His 2012 season with the Denver Broncos was shortened by suspension, and he played only seven games. He tallied a grade of 3.9. Bears’ fans need Williams to duplicate that performance level over the course of a full season. Unfortunately, the last time Williams played more than ten games and received an above-average mark was 2010, when he tallied a 1.3 grade.
Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene: Last year’s rookies graded poorly, but that could have been the result of being exposed before they were ready to play. Among 55 qualifying inside linebackers, Bostic ranked 51st with a grade of -17.2. Greene did not qualify but received a grade of -9.6. Bears’ fans have to put their faith in general manager Phil Emery and the coaching staff that Bostic and Greene will improve in their second season.
Lance Briggs: Despite being limited to nine games because of injury, weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, 34 in November, still ranked 18th of 36 4-3 linebackers and earned a positive grade of .4. Briggs was ranked 3rd out of 43 linebackers in 2012; 10th out of 45 in 2011; and 6th out of 41 in 2010. In each year, he achieved well above-average grades. As long as Briggs can regain full health, there is no reason he cannot anchor the Bears’ linebacking corps again.
It appears the Bears are counting on in-house improvement, and not free agency, for an upgrade from the linebacking corps.
They need a return to good health by Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams; appreciable improvement from second-year players Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene; and a much more natural fit for erstwhile defensive end Shea McClellin. If McClellin plays linebacker for the Bears with the flare he did in college, this unit could go from a position of weakness to one of strength regardless of any additions the Bears make in the draft.
Powered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks