There is a need at the linebacker position the Bears have to address in April’s NFL Draft. Whether it comes in the first or second round, if Chicago wants to continue to run its 4-3 defense effectively, there has to be a player selected at that position.
The good news is that there are a number of prospects who would be considered a strong selection if chosen with the 20th overall pick. The bad news (or good news depending on how you look at it) is that the player who has the most upside and would best fit in Chicago’s defense would be Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who, following such a tumultuous off-season, should be available.
General manager Phil Emery has given no indication that Brian Urlacher, the face of the Chicago Bears franchise since 2000, will be back in uniform next season. Urlacher turns 35 this year, an age in which players at the linebacker position are rarely effective. What he lacks in physical ability, however, Urlacher provides in leadership and intelligence. Those things are invaluable in the game of football, which is why Chicago had so much success before he was sidelined with injury.
The two things that could ultimately prompt Emery to look to the first round of this year's Draft for a successor is Urlacher’s inability to stay on the field and the lack of depth Chicago showed behind the 12-year veteran.
Fifth-year linebacker and Northwestern product, Nick Roach, who took over the middle linebacker spot in Urlacher’s absence, is also an unrestricted free agent. Roach was not the stopgap that Chicago would have likeed (Pro Football Focus gave him a -2.5 rating for the 2012 season) after Urlacher suffered a season-ending hamstring injury vs. Seattle.
Roach also struggled to get off blocks and make tackles at his original position of strong-side linebacker in Chicago’s base defense, which could end up making him expendable altogether and have Emery scrambling for upgrades at that position, too.
If Emery feels these two linebackers aren’t worth new contracts, then Chicago will be down two starters at the position. This is where a guy like Te’o enters in. Before his not-so-great performance in the National Championship Game versus Alabama, Te’o was considered the top linebacker available in upcoming Draft, and some still view him as that player.
Regardless of how he played versus Alabama, Te’o has a unique skillset that would fit well in Chicago’s 4-3, Cover-2 scheme. With the proper development, his superior ball skills and instincts would allow the Bears’ defense to continue to play at a high level.
Drafting Te’o, though, means inviting the media scrutiny that comes with him into your organization. Te’o’s fake girlfriend hoax has been the biggest sports story, well, maybe ever. No one knows if it will continue to follow the Laie, Hawaii native throughout his career, but it looks like it very well could. The last thing you want to do is distract a team ready to compete for a Super Bowl with this type of situation, but that is the risk involved with bringing Te’o in.
The other side of the story is that Te’o might not have been available at your pick if the situation had not occurred. Te'o is a top-ten talent and to be able to draft anyone with that type of talent at the 20th pick is considered a steal.
This week's NFL Combine will be huge for Te'o’s draft stock and the teams considering his services. He has shown the ability to be great, but can he convince teams that he is worth the risk? Did he really not have a hand in perpetrating the hoax? If he didn't have a hand it in it, why did he continue to lie about it?
Emery and the Chicago brass will have a big decision to make if Te'o, in fact, is available at the 20th position. Regardless, the Bears have to find a starter for the most important position on defense, because right now, they don't have him.
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