General manager Phil Emery said after the draft that the only Bears linebacker who has been told he’s a starter is seven-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs. The offseason program did little to change that sentiment, and the Bears will arrive in Bourbonnais with plenty to sort out in the second level of their defense.
Briggs, 33, was limited to nine starts in 2013 because of a fractured shoulder, but the stalwart is healthy again and ready to man his familiar “Will” post. D.J. Williams, 31, is the favorite to start in the middle. But he made only four starts in his first season in Chicago before tearing his pectoral muscle, and started 16 games only twice during nine seasons with the Broncos.
Jon Bostic returns for his second season after filling in for Williams in the middle as a rookie. He’ll compete on the strong side with former first-round defensive end Shea McClellin, whose career the Bears are attempting to revive through a switch to linebacker.
Veteran special-teamer Jordan Senn, undrafted rookies Christian Jones, DeDe Lattimore and Conor O’Neill and holdovers Jerry Franklin and Khaseem Greene round out the linebacker corps.
Position battles: Although coach Marc Trestman referred to him as their “lead dog,” Williams spent some time on the sideline this offseason. He worked primarily with the first-stringers in the base defense, but was removed in favor of Bostic in the nickel package. Williams’ experience, and the fact that he held up well in limited snaps last season, are pluses. Yet the Bears appear to be looking for more youth and explosiveness on passing downs.
The feature attraction camp battle among linebackers will be McClellin vs. Bostic at “Sam.” It’s a dirty-work position that requires players taking on extra blockers, and Bourbonnais will be a golden opportunity for them to not only show what kind of students they are, but their ability to provide the physicality and toughness the Bears have spent all offseason focused on.
Contract situations (information via Spotrac): The one that stands out is Briggs. He enters the final year of a three-year, $17.5 million pact, one that pays him $6.5 million in 2014. Will the door be open for his return next year, or is another Urlacher-type divorce looming? That largely depends on how Briggs bounces back from a rare injury-shortened season. He is unlikely to secure another long-term commitment – and the Bears began preparing for life without him when they drafted Bostic and Greene – but a strong performance could entice the Bears to lock Briggs up for another season, much as they did with Charles Tillman this year.
Williams is due a base salary of $955,000, with an additional $313,750 in workout bonuses. It’s a prove-it deal, and Williams can prove he belongs beyond 2014 by bringing durability and stability to a position in flux.
Keep an eye on: Jones. His sheer size (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) and movement skills really stood out during the offseason. He’ll have a chance to stand out further in Bourbonnais by showing the pop as a hitter that was evident on his college tape. This is a golden opportunity for Jones. He enters with a clean slate after surprisingly not hearing his name called in the draft, and McClellin and Bostic aren’t exactly established starters in the league. Jones is a long shot to earn a starting job, but he’ll earn a spot on the 53-man roster by excelling on special teams. The Bears have so much uncertainty now and in the foreseeable future at linebacker, making this an ideal spot for Jones to potentially break through.