This is the second part of an in-depth series that will examine the status of the top Chicago Bears free agents. The defense will be the focus in this second part.
The Bears have 26 free agents, including 22 unrestricted free agents this off-season. The NFL Combine (Feb. 22), free agent period (March 11) and NFL Draft (May 8) are all around the corner.
Last week, we took a look at defensive tackle Henry Melton's future in Chicago. Today, we examine the status of middle linebacker D.J. Williams moving forward.
Who: Middle linebacker D.J. Williams
2013 contract: one-year deal, $1.75 million
Signed to replace Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker, Williams started only four games before tearing his pectoral muscle against the New York Giants in Week Six.
He appeared in six games in 2013, but didn't make a real contribution until Week Three against the Pittsburgh Steelers after recovering from a calf injury suffered in training camp.
Against the Steelers, Williams flashed his play-making ability, adding two sacks and forcing one fumble. Two weeks later against the New Orleans Saints, he racked up a season-high 11 tackles, which included eight solo tackles.
Williams has appeared in just 26 games since 2011 after missing only five games from 2004-2010 with the Broncos. The 31-year-old isn't getting any younger, but the Bears need leaders on defense.
Bears general manager Phil Emery made it clear that the interest is mutual between Williams and team management.
"If we add back a D.J. Williams or another player, that player will be involved in that competitive mix and it's best person wins those two spots," Emery said to the media on Feb. 22 at the NFL Combine. "We're excited about the competition."
Williams, whose been rehabbing at Halas Hall this off-season has expressed interest in returning this upcoming season.
“Hopefully if things work out right, I’ll be back here. I love our defense. It’s simple, but we play fast and just downhill," Williams said on ESPNChicago.com this month. "I know I still have a good amount of years left in me. I still have talent. If I don’t end up here, I’ll end up somewhere else, though I would love to end up here.”
Emery analyzed Williams's future at the NFL Combine and said he was a "good football player" who had "legitimately very good burst." Emery also noted that the former first-round pick out Miami started to produce at a high level after recovering from injuries in camp.
"Saw a player that has good instincts, gets around the ball and plays with a relentless style," Emery said. "We were not displeased with his effort. We were very pleased with where he was going and how he was progressing."
The Bears could choose to add middle linebacker competition via the draft or free agency if Williams isn't retained.
30-year-old D'Qwell Jackson could be another feasible option. Jackson was released by the Cleveland Browns on Wednesday after recording 90 or more tackles in six of his eight seasons.
Why will he be back?
The Bears signed Williams to a non-guaranteed deal last year simply to make him prove his worth. He showcased just a little of what he could still do before suffering a season-ending injury. He needs to get back in tip-top shape because Bostic is entering his second NFL season and is only getting better. However, Williams presence is needed however due to the lack of leadership a year ago when he went down, specifically from the playcaller position in the middle. He would be a cheap option, who could not only provide depth to the position, but plenty of experience and knowledge to the young position.
Why won't he be back?
Like mentioned plenty above, Williams hasn't been able to stay healthy as of late and he's an aging player in this league. The Bears may choose to add another veteran middle linebacker through free agency. I don't see them taking a middle linebacker in the draft after taking Bostic and Greene a year ago. Certainly not in the early rounds. Bostic may be better suited for the outside as stated by Emery this off-season. Williams surely won't be expensive, but the Bears may be open to spending a bit more to get a dependable player. The recently released Jackson could do wonders next to Briggs and Co. A veteran needs to be added either way and Emery clearly understands that.
Up Next: Linebacker James Anderson
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