In the first of a three-part series 'Looking Ahead' to training camp, CSNChicago.com Bears Insider previews the linebacker competition that lies ahead in Bourbonnais.
The minicamps, OTA’s and strength-and-conditioning sessions wrapped up last week, leaving virtually the exact same questions that were in place back in April with the first minicamp: the offensive line, Jay Cutler and the new offense, linebackers, sufficient linemen for the forming 3-4 and so on. Those questions will remain in need of definitive answers all the way into mid-September when the Green Bay Packers come to Soldier Field.
Roster decisions, starters, “these guys understand that they pick the team,” said coach John Fox. “It's how they perform. How they practice. How they're evaluated. It's what to do, how to do, do it under pressure.”
Evaluations of either line will wait until training camp. Three of the Bears’ six draft choices were linemen, and they aren’t allowed in pads or each other’s kitchens until training camp.
But a few observations are in order in the quiet before Bourbonnais. CSNChicago.com looks at three areas in particular:
Linebacker competition will be extreme
The top priority from the outset of free agency was linebacker, specifically outside pass-rush threats. Sam Acho and Pernell McPhee were signed and are ensconced on the edges of a defense that coordinator Vic Fangio is committed to making as unpredictable as the Bears’ 4-3 had become the opposite.
After that, matters become both uncertain and very interesting. Jared Allen was first-alternate on the outside, appeared to both grasp and enjoy the new role, regardless of him not being a starter for the first time since he began his rookie season (2004) as a backup and on special teams. Lamarr Houston and Willie Young are going to be pressed to find snaps as they return from season-ending leg injuries. Acho and McPhee were not signed to be situational pass rushers.
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But it is inside where four players are head-to-head for two jobs, something that was never the case in the time of Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Jonathan Bostic needed injuries to D.J. Williams to slip into the starting lineup; now Bostic is coming off an offseason spent watching from the sidelines with what is believed to be a back issue. Like Houston and Young, Bostic has an uphill battle for a spot in either the base or sub packages this preseason.
The Bears signed Mason Foster from Tampa Bay, where he was a 4-3 middle linebacker who did not have a place in Lovie Smith’s system. Whether he has a prominent one in Fox/Fangio’s is far from assured.
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The “starters” at the end of the pre-camp offseason are Christian Jones and Shea McClellin. Do not dismiss McClellin, looking at his third position in three years, and Jones has added muscle up to 250 pounds. Jones in particular has impressed and if he does not secure one of the inside-linebacker spots, it will be a camp surprise.
“I think McClellin and Christian Jones have some talent and they should be able to find a spot in our defense somewhere,” Fangio said. “[Jones has] got good size. He’s got good athletic ability. He’s a young, eager guy and football’s important to him. I think he’s got a bright future if he can develop.”
Coming Tuesday: The nose nobody knows
Coming Wednesday: Offensive line decisions loom at multiple spots