Early Predictions for Chicago Bears' Key Position Battles
The Chicago Bears’ strategy this offseason was to acquire players at positions of need, which has left their depth chart crowded and convoluted in places.
Position battles in training camp will definitely be intense.
Chicago upgraded its roster primarily at tight end, offensive line and linebacker this offseason. Not all of their moves will lead to camp competition, though.
Newcomer Martellus Bennett is a clear-cut starter at tight end, and former New Orleans Saint Jermon Bushrod is getting paid too much to sit the bench. ESPN reported his deal is worth $35.9 million over five years. Bennett and Bushrod are the main upgrades for quarterback Jay Cutler, so even if they are pushed this offseason, they won’t be supplanted as starters.
On the side of inactivity, incumbent nickelback Kelvin Hayden seems to have the trust of the Bears front office. No serious challengers were brought in at cornerback; one former undrafted free agent and two rookie undrafted free agents were the only additions.
With those positions set, the battles to watch are at defensive end, outside linebacker, middle linebacker and offensive guard.
Will youth or experience win out at those positions?
There are four primary candidates for the starting defensive end position across from Julius Peppers.
The front-runner right now is Corey Wootton, who had seven sacks in 2012 for the Bears.
Former first-round pick Shea McClellin is also in the running. The Boise State product only tallied 2.5 sacks last season, but his production was limited by injuries.
Another contender for the position is Cornelius Washington, a high-upside player who was nabbed by Chicago in the sixth round of the 2013 draft.
Earlier this offseason, Chicago also added Kyle Moore, who started for the Buffalo Bills seven times last season.
This position battle will be intriguing, but the losers will still have an opportunity to contribute. Expect new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to keep the approach the Bears have been using and utilize a rotation along the defensive line.
Still, the starter will earn bragging rights and play a more prominent role on the defense.
Washington didn’t have many sacks in college, but the Georgia defensive end was still effective at generating pressure. With some coaching, the strength and athleticism that got him in the backfield will translate into sacks at the NFL level.
The sixth-round pick has a long way to go, though, so a more realistic expectation is for him to play as an occasional pass-rusher on third downs.
Moore is the oldest competitor for left end, but he only has three career sacks in four NFL seasons.
Granted, all of those sacks came in 2012, but the former Bill’s strongest campaign also had some glaring weaknesses. Moore was bad against the run last year, posting a negative 6.7 rating in run defense on Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In fact, Moore was so bad against the run in Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins that he lost his starting job for the last game of the season. The new Bear showed the ability to get to the quarterback (23 QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus), but he won’t start in Chicago until he improves other parts of his game.
That leaves McClellin and Wootton.
Wootton is the larger player at 6’6” and 270 pounds, while McClellin measures in at 6’3”. Shea makes up for his size with his work ethic and great motor on the field. The effort McClellin gives could impress the new coaching staff and push him past Wootton on the depth chart. Only injuries kept the rookie from performing.
On the other hand, it seems Wootton finally put things together in 2012 after two inconsistent seasons. He struggled with injuries early in his career but stayed healthy last year. The late-season starter produced seven sacks over the course of the year, good for third best on the team.
In the event that both stay healthy, the starter will be McClellin.
That’s right, the first-round pick in 2012 will usurp the starting spot from Wootton if neither gets hurt. The Chicago Tribune reported the number of snaps each played last year: 54.5 percent for Wootton and 34.7 percent for McClellin.
If you project their numbers as starters for an entire season, both would be great options. But McClellin outperformed Wootton with less snaps, hurrying the quarterback 22 times compared to Wootton’s 18 (via Pro Football Focus).
On top of that, Wootton was bad against the run when he became a starter. He was rated as a minus-one or worse in run defense by Pro Football Focus in three out of seven games as a starter.
McClellin’s motor will enable him to hunt down ball-carriers. At Boise Stat,e he had 26 tackles for loss as a junior and senior (via www.sports-reference.com).
Chicago just needs McClellin to stay healthy in order to live up to his first-round expectations.
The competition at outside linebacker is between free-agent signee James Anderson and fourth-round steal Khaseem Greene.
Anderson has played in the league for seven years with the Carolina Panthers. The vet’s experience should give him an advantage over the rookie out of Rutgers.
Greene may be too dangerous to leave on the sidelines, though.
A recent article by Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune described the former Scarlet Knight as “an extraordinary playmaker.”
It’s unlikely that anyone would describe Anderson that way.
Anderson is a solid player who had two great seasons in 2010 and 2011. During that span, he posted 275 combined tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, six recovered fumbles and three interceptions.
The problem is that Anderson doesn’t turn heads on the field. He is a solid tackler, but the Panthers felt OK letting him go. Their depth at linebacker played into the decision, but part of it was a desire for outstanding play over solid play.
Greene could provide that. He set an all-time NCAA record with 15 forced fumbles at Rutgers, according to the Chicago Bears website. Does that sound like a Chicago Bear?
The record-setting linebacker started his career at Rutgers as a safety, like Brian Urlacher at New Mexico. That prior experience as a defensive back means Greene has good coverage skills to pair with his physical play.
Greene will win the starting spot over Anderson based on his playmaking ability. Anderson is a fine contingency plan, but Greene’s ceiling is sky high.
With the Brian Urlacher era coming to an end in Chicago, the middle linebacker position is up for grabs.
Newcomers D.J. Williams (signed in free agency) and Jon Bostic (second-round pick) will compete for the job.
Williams was suspended six games last year for PED use, but before that he was a good middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos. He moved inside in 2007 and played there through the 2010 season.
During those four years, the former first-round pick had 475 combined tackles, 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, six recovered fumbles and one interception. He was regarded as one of the better linebackers in the game, though he was not voted to a Pro Bowl.
The suspension ruined Williams’ 2012 campaign, as he only started one game all year.
The former Bronco is hoping for redemption with the Bears, but Bostic might stand in the way.
The rookie out of Florida was one of the best players for the fifth-best college defense by yardage allowed in 2012 (according to the NCAA’s website). He was the leading tackler for the Gators the year before, too.
Bostic’s NFL draft profile describes him as an “absolute hammer in the middle” with the potential to “eventually earn a starting job at the next level.” Between his speed (4.61 40-yard dash) and his physical style of play, he is a great fit for Chicago’s defense.
Expect him to turn that “eventually” into an “immediately” after training camp.
The Bears brought former New York Jet Matt Slauson on board at guard and then drafted Kyle Long in the first round. Gabe Carimi and James Brown, both college tackles, slid inside to start some games at right and left guard, respectively, in 2012.
Eben Britton, a five-game starter for Jacksonville in 2012, was signed earlier this offseason. On top of them, Edwin Williams, who has shown some talent at left guard, is still on the roster.
To say there’s a logjam at offensive guard would be an understatement.
Fortunately, every player is athletic and versatile. General manager Phil Emery wisely filled the line with talent that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer can move around.
The other addition through free agency, Slauson, is far more likely to start. Slauson didn’t give up a sack last season (via ESPN).
Challenging Slauson at left guard is the Bears’ first-round pick from 2013, Kyle Long. The inexperienced Oregon product was viewed by many as a long-term prospect, but Emery claimed that he can “contribute right away” (reported by the Chicago Sun-Times).
The fact that the Bears drafted Long in the first round with so many options at guard on the roster speaks volumes. Emery expects Long to start in 2013, and anything less will be a disappointment.
Though Brown was passable at left guard in 2012, he struggled with penalties and pass protection. It will be almost impossible for him to get past Slauson and Long on the depth chart. Brown’s versatility (he played left tackle in college) means he could find a home elsewhere on the line, though.
Williams is a dark-horse candidate at right guard. He’s played well the past three years for Chicago. He avoids penalties, does an average job against the run and hasn’t allowed any sacks as a Bear (according to Pro Football Focus).
His only drawback is that he allows defenders to pressure the quarterback, even if they don’t collect sacks. That’s a problem, since Cutler’s protection will be Chicago’s top priority on the line next season.
Carimi is a better option at guard for pass protection. While he was abysmal in that department at right tackle, Pro Football Focus rated him plus-2.9 in four games at right guard.
Run-blocking was always a strength for the former Wisconsin mauler, so that makes him a well-rounded candidate to start at right guard. If Carimi can cut down on his penalties, he should be a capable first-stringer.
Britton should be a fine backup at right guard, which means Kromer could slide Williams to center if there’s a need there.
The options are plenty for the Bears at guard, but the opening lineup should have Slauson as the top reserve and two of their three most recent first-round picks starting.
*All unattributed statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.
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