Much like the cornerback group that saw longtime Bear Charles Tillman depart this off-season, the linebacker unit will be without Lance Briggs, who spent the last 12 years alongside Tillman.
Impressive off-season signing Pernell McPhee, veterans Lamarr Houston and Sam Acho are the main outside linebackers for the Bears. Jared Allen, Willie Young and David Bass all are making the transition to outside linebacker in the base defense.
Third-year man Jonathan Bostic, second-year riser Christian Jones, fourth-year underachiever Shea McClellin and free agent addition Mason Foster are competing for two inside spots on Vic Fangio’s defense.
Special teamer DeDe Lattimore, second-year Illinois product Jonathan Brown and undrafted rookies Jonathan Anderson, John Timu and Kyle Woestmann round out the linebacker unit.
The linebacker position is the hardest to figure out with all the changes that took place this off-season and the transition of some key defensive ends to outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.
-McPhee is the most polished in terms of a 3-4 outside backer on the roster. Even though the 26-year-old has only six starts to his name in four NFL seasons he is primed to breakout. He generated 92 tackles, 17 sacks, seven pass breakups, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery with Baltimore. McPhee had a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2014 and has the ability to play all over the defense not only at linebacker but also at defensive end. He should be an immediate breakout player this season.
-The second-year FSU product is starting to look like an absolute steal after being an undrafted signing a year ago. Jones had 69 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery in 16 games, five starts. Hew will have to hold off Foster and McClellin to earn one of the two inside spots, but after a solid collegiate career and a nice rookie campaign he should be a starter. Fangio likes big linebackers and Jones fits the bill at 6-foot-3. Plus he put on 10 pounds of muscle this off-season to bulk up.
-Bostic has yet to participate in any team practices this off-season due to a back injury, but entering his third season he has plenty to prove once he gets back on the field. His main competition is likely Foster, who has shown flashes of great play in four seasons with Tampa Bay previously. Bostic has 17 starts in two seasons and has been up-and-down to say the least, but in the new scheme his athleticism and smarts should help him make a smooth transition. Being one of two inside backers will benefit Bostic instead of being the guy inside like he was at times in his Bears career.
-Houston has played in a 3-4 defense before with Oakland. He is coming off his first season with the Bears where he recorded only one sack in eight games before tearing his ACL in a blowout loss to New England when he picked up that lone sack. Once he gets back to full health however he should be the guy opposite McPhee. Both players have similar frames and can play various positions on the line. Houston should get the first crack at being a starter with Allen, Young and Acho battling for playing time.
-Allen can play a similar role to Denver’s DeMarcus Ware or Buffalo’s Mario Williams as a defensive end bodied athlete playing outside linebacker. Allen is a smart player, but coming off a 2014 season where he had just 5.5 sacks he may be slowing down in terms of production. A move back to the middle of the defense could revive him. He will end up seeing plenty of time at his natural end position in nickel packages.
-Like mentioned above former Buc, Foster, will compete for a starting role inside. He has had success, but health has been an issue in the past. He is listed a co-starter because the Bears could end up using a rotation inside more often than not.
-Young has never played outside linebacker just like Allen, but the 29-year-old has some serious speed which should help him make the move. He had a career-high 10 sacks in 2014 after piling up only six as a rotational piece with Detroit from 2010-13. Young’s role as a linebacker is a mystery to everyone, but he should be effective once again at end. He is coming off a torn left Achilles injury, so he is likely a question mark for the start of training camp on July 29.
-Acho has 32 starts in four seasons in a 3-4 scheme with Arizona. He should be able to fill any spot at linebacker inside or outside and is a very smart talent.
-McClellin is the biggest name on this list hands down, but he only has one year of experience as an NFL linebacker after spending 2012 and 2013 as a defensive end. The former first-round pick from Boise State needs to have a good year to even have a chance of earning a new contract next off-season. He will get a crack inside first, but could be bounced outside with his agility.
-Bass much like Allen and Young has never played linebacker, but he has the tools to be a sub-package player on the outside. The third-year man has four sacks in 20 games as a rotational end. He is a solid athlete and someone who can produce if given the chance.
-Lattimore, Brown, Anderson, Timu and Woestmann are all battling for a spot or perhaps two on special teams. Lattimore had three special teams tackles as a rookie in 2014.
It’s hard to really say who will be the four starters at linebacker for the Bears, but they have plenty of players to choose from. It’s a versatile group with a large number of interesting names.
Training camp should be where we find out the true rotation at linebacker outside and inside.
Either way McPhee should be the leader and Jones has a big chance of being a Patrick Willis type inside in Fangio’s defense. Those two alone give the Bears plenty of hope at linebacker.
Next up: Defensive line
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