Not many teams would replace two of their three leading tacklers from the previous season and believe they’re improving. But the Bears are in the process of doing exactly that.
The makeover of the Bears defense that began effectively a year ago with the hirings of coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio took another step on Saturday when the Bears signed former Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman to a three-year contract. This follows by a matter of hours the addition of former Denver Broncos inside linebacker Danny Trevathan.
The signings presumably foreshadow the exits of Christian Jones and Shea McClellin as the Bears retool their 3-4 linebacker corps closer to players from that scheme rather than attempting to staff the defense with players specifically acquired for another system, which inside linebackers Jones and McClellin were.
Jones was second to rookie safety Adrian Amos on the Bears last season with 98 tackles. McClellin was third with 96, with Pernell McPhee a distant fourth at 64.
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Running the defense
McClellin primarily and Jones in his absence were tasked with handling defensive signals, assignments and positionings in the Bears’ scheme. Both Freeman and Trevathan have done precisely those duties at a demonstrably higher level.
“My greatest strength is understanding and knowing my job and understanding the defense,” Freeman said. “I'm a big studier. You may not know a lot about [Div. III] guys, but we don't get athletic scholarships. We get academic ones. Speed, being able to run around and tackle. Just a lot of things that make me who I am.”
Freeman was surprised when the Colts made no effort to re-sign him after four years with them, chalking it off to the NFL simply being a business. “It was just like a, 'good luck in free agency,'” Freeman said. He said he didn’t realize that the Colts were on the Bears’ 2016 schedule, but being informed of that on Saturday brought a healthy laugh.
In the meantime, Freeman was clear on what Fangio and Fox expect of him.
“Being a three-down linebacker,” Freeman said. “Being able to stay on the field, cover, my understanding and being able to dissect plays, just being a playmaker. Just doing what I've been doing. I guess that's plenty.”
Freeman and Trevathan are unique upgrades in part because they are inside linebackers with coverage skills, which neither Jones nor McClellin demonstrated. Neither has an interception in their Bears careers. Jones had 4 pass breakups last season, McClellin two. For purposes of perspective: little-used backup cornerback Alan Ball had 5, as did linebacker Jonathan Anderson who spent the first five weeks of the season on practice squad and played fewer than half the ’15 snaps that Jones and McClellin did. Reserve defensive tackle Will Sutton had four. Defensive end Willie Young had three.
Freeman is one of three NFL linebackers since 2012 to record at least eight forced fumbles and four interceptions along with Lavonte David and Thomas Davis. Freeman has 17 pass breakups in his four Indianapolis seasons, more than Jones and McClellin combined for their four years as Bears linebackers (McClellin was played at defensive end his first two years).
The Freeman and Trevathan signings combine to dramatically dial down any need to address that position, beyond on a best-player-available basis, in the draft, which is generally considered below average in 2016 at the inside-linebacker position.