The Chicago Bears are currently faced with a question many teams have to answer to start each season: Does the benefit of starting an experienced veteran outweigh the prospects of a young, promising rookie being thrown into the fire?
D.J. Williams, a 10-year veteran who only returned to practice this week, and Jon Bostic, the surprising second-rounder who has made a name for himself this preseason, have presented the Bears with that dilemma ahead of their Week 1 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the opener, the Bears should start Williams and then re-evaluate the position accordingly.
There's very little question that Bostic represents the team's future at middle linebacker. The Bears invested the No. 50 overall pick in April's draft on the Florida product, and he's used every snap of the preseason to acclimate himself within a prideful defense.
But as the Bears transition into the post-Brian Urlacher era, it only makes sense to ease Bostic into the role while allowing a steady veteran like Williams to take the starter's snaps. Remember, Urlacher didn't start his first NFL game until Week 3 of his rookie season.
The decision to start the veteran is made easier by the fact that Williams isn't yet ready to take on a full game's work load, which will give head coach Marc Trestman the ability to play his rookie middle linebacker in certain spots early in the season.
Williams, who participated in his first full practice Wednesday since suffering a right calf injury on July 31, should need time to get his game legs underneath him. In the meantime, the Bears can give both players snaps while also allowing Bostic a chance to work on special teams. Williams otherwise wouldn't play on coverage teams.
Trestman indicated his plans on giving Williams and Bostic snaps against the Bengals Sunday, via Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago.
“We’re going to leave it wide open in terms of where we are at the end of the week," Trestman said. "They’re both going to be ready to play middle linebacker and there certainly wouldn’t be any reason why we wouldn’t want to move them around and in-and-out of the game.”
Bostic, for all his highlight plays from this preseason, still has growing to do before he's ready to man the middle of the Bears' Cover-2 defense.
Over 84 preseason snaps, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Bostic a minus-2.8 grade against the run, which was the seventh-worst among qualifying inside linebackers. The rookie still tends to overrun certain plays (as you'll see below), and his ability to shed blocks at the second level is a work in progress.
Facing the San Diego Chargers in the second preseason game, Bostic made a mistake that the Bears saw too much of during the exhibition schedule.
In the screen shot, we see Bostic (circled) working his way outside against a stretch run to Ryan Mathews. But Bostic extends himself too wide, which allowed both the guard to seal him off and Mathews to successfully cut the run back inside. The result was nine yards and a Chargers first down.
Bostic's awareness against the run is still developing, too. His vision has occasionally let him down, as we see in the screen shot below:
The Chargers run a simple misdirection play, with the fullback sticking the weak-side pursuit and the running back faking to his left and cutting to his right. It's a play that's run in the NFL hundreds of times each week.
Bostic (circled) finds himself lost. His initial read takes him a couple of steps to the right, at which point the Chargers already have the middle linebacker beat. San Diego has acres of space to run to the right side, plus second-level help in the form of a tight end, while Bostic is still attempting to find the football.
The result is nine yards on a first-down run. Bostic, who would have been a free runner to the football, is mostly to blame. He's trailing the action the entire sequence. A play later, the Chargers ran an inside smash play and Bostic missed the tackle at the point. Another first down.
To his credit, Bostic delivered his highlight-reel hit of Chargers receiver Mike Willie on the play following his missed tackle. He appears to have a short memory. And as the preseason went on, Bostic was becoming more confident in his reads against the run.
Still, the mistakes that come from a rookie middle linebacker wouldn't be expected of a veteran like Williams.
The Bears might also have reservations about Bostic in certain passing situations.
While he did register an impressive interception against Cam Newton in the preseason opener (which was returned for a touchdown), Bostic as a starter would be manning a very important position in the Bears' passing defense.
In the Cover-2, middle linebackers are asked to spin their hips and run with receivers down the middle seam. The presence of the middle linebacker is what allows the defense to play a two-safety shell and still cover the deep middle of the field effectively.
Urlacher was arguably one of the best middle linebackers ever at accomplishing the task. But Bostic still has kinks to work out in this area, especially when teams attack him with play action.
Against the Chargers, we saw San Diego take advantage of Bostic's overaggressiveness on at least two different occasions.
In this screen shot, the Chargers run a play action on 1st-and-10, and Bostic bites. He takes two steps forward in response to the fake. This is a big no-no, and we see why in the next shot.
Thanks to his mistake, Bostic is now in full retreat mode. Chargers quarterback Charlie Whitehurst has him beat, and the completion is only a matter of pitch-and-catch over the middle. If played correctly, Bostic would have planted himself inside the middle zone and forced Whitehurst to go elsewhere.
Instead, Ladarius Green hauls in a 23-yard catch beyond Bostic's reach.
The Chargers would again victimize Bostic on play action in the second half. Whitehurst found Green for a 12-yard score when Khaseem Greene crashed hard off the fake and Bostic was frozen outside his zone. Whitehurst's pass split the two linebackers for another relatively easy completion.
These are far from deal-breaking mistakes. Every rookie linebacker goes through similar growing pains, especially in reading the gaps and lanes against the run and staying disciplined versus play action. There's also no better time to make these mistakes than the preseason, when rookies can see the wrongdoings on film and correct them before the real games start.
However, it's still very clear that starting a veteran like Williams, who was originally signed to replace Urlacher at middle linebacker, gives the Bears the best chance to win in Week 1.
The Bengals are loaded with talent on the offensive side of the football, and you can bet that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and quarterback Andy Dalton have viewed the mistakes from Bostic shown above. Cincinnati could really take advantage of a young middle linebacker playing his first regular-season game.
Gruden and Dalton likely wouldn't feel as confident with a 10-year veteran starting in the middle.
However, calling on Williams to be the starter in Week 1 shouldn't be viewed as demoting Bostic to backup and special teams duties for his entire rookie season. There was enough positive film from Bostic in preseason to believe that he's not only an answer in the long term, but also this year if Williams struggles or the mistakes are gradually corrected.
But for now, the Bears' best bet is to start Williams, regardless of his preseason absence—remember, he hasn't played in the preseason in each of the last two years prior to 2013—and then continually re-evaluate the position as the season progresses.
Easing a rookie into Chicago's complicated defense has worked in the past. And while unfair to compare Bostic to a future Hall of Famer like Urlacher, it appears that the Bears' most prudent decision once again is to roll with a veteran while the young middle linebacker learns the ropes.