If you use the term "Monsters of the Midway" it is almost guaranteed that your listener's mind will flash to picture of a linebacker. The history of Chicago defenses was written in large part by legends who occupied the linebacking corps. Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary are all in the Hall of Fame and Brian Urlacher will join them soon enough. As a result, thinking about linebackers as the driving forces of defense in the Windy City is a natural reflex. But times have changed and the current Bears linebacker's depth chart is nothing but a remodeling job that is about one third of the way completed.
Let's start with the good news. Pernell McPhee looks like one of those rare miracles; a free agent actually worth the huge stack of money he got to sign with the Bears. He has played hard and shown leadership even when the rest of the defense has struggled. Based on his production and attitude he's set himself up as a natural leader of the defense.
Well that didn't take long... we are done with the good news for current Chicago LBs. The rest of the of the group can be lumped into one large bucket labeled "work in progress".
Shea McClellin is a classic punching bag in the Chicago sports scene but doesn't really deserve it. He's a guy that has done everything asked of him by the team, whether it was wise or not, and kept his chin up through some very rough times. The fact that he was overdrafted, shoehorned into an unnatural position and then asked to switch positions again (and again) is not his fault. Shea finally has a coordinator that believes he is in the right position and is doing a good job, but he is 8 games into the third major switch of his fairly young career. His development has definitely been stunted by all the changes. McClellin isn't ever likely to be a world-beater as an LB, but he might be one of those smart, steady role players that every team needs to make a run. He might just as easily be out the door at the end of the season so Ryan Pace can fill the spot with a player he thinks has a higher ceiling. I would not be surprised by either option coming true.
Christian Jones had a 2nd or 3rd round grade coming out of Florida State a couple of years ago and then failed his drug test at the scouting combine. That caused him to fall out of the draft and Chicago capitalized by signing him as an undrafted free agent. He has great size and a ton of athletic talent (he's able to keep up with WR's playing in the slot). He seems like such a natural fit on the inside of Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense, but the reality is Jones hasn't produced any real impact in the new scheme. He's young, and there is still a decent chance that he blossoms into a playmaker, but the clock is ticking.
The rest of the linebacking room looks a little like the cantina scene from Star Wars; lots of oddballs and mismatched pieces. The best of the rest is Sam Acho. He has experience in the scheme, does the dirty work that allows the defense to function and is quietly productive. If he was surrounded by some more talented defenders he might be able to get loose and cause some real havoc. Lamarr Houston was big-money addition from Oakland largely because he was a great run-stopper in that defense. Injury and scheme changes have slowed him down and he is certainly not producing at the level his contract demands. Willie Young is a natural pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end trying to fit in as a stand-up LB. It's not really his game and it shows. He wanted to be traded at the deadline, but the Bears resisted, likely because Willie is one of the few guys on the roster who can actually put pressure on opposing QB's. It's a rocky marriage that is likely to end sooner rather than later, and I doubt the word "amicable" will be used to describe the situation once it's over.
The other guys are pretty much just that; other guys. Lamin Barrow is thumper and special-teamer who John Fox took a shine to in Denver. LaRoy Reynolds is a UDFA from 2013 that has bounced around the league and shows up on film decently against the run when he gets opportunities. Jonathan Anderson made a few flashy plays in training camp this year and came up with a big interception the week the Bears added him to the active roster, but hasn't done much else.
These are not Monsters of the Midway. These are not Hall of Famers. These are not (for the most part) difference-makers. The Bears would like to be monsters on defense again, and to do that they will need some serious impact from their linebackers.
Reggie Ragland, Linebacker, Alabama
Impact is something Ragland knows a lot about. Watch almost any film on him and it is easy to see that he thrives on it. He craves jarring contact and is very skilled at creating it. Reggie is a senior at Alabama and when he leaves for the pro game they should him grant him an honorary masters degree in creating collisions. He is as skilled as anyone currently playing college football at tracking down running backs and causing an explosion when he gets there. In other words, he's a natural linebacker.
Jake Gaither was the head football coach at Florida A&M for 25 years and was credited with saying "I like my boys to be agile, mobile, and hostile," and that ideal certainly applies to linebackers. If I grade Ragland on that scale he gets an A+ on 2 out of 3 right now (mobile and hostile), and he's improving on the third (agile). At 6' 2" and 252 pounds Reggie certainly looks like he popped out of prototype mold for linebackers, but he's not a mindless hulk who likes to hit. Reggie is the leader of the Crimson Tide defense, makes all the pre-snap reads/adjustments and has a strong understanding of schemes and alignments. All of that contributes to his prime strength as a player: identifying and stopping the run.
Many different elements have to be fused together for a player to be an effective run defender. I talked about Ragland's awareness and alignment skills but there is so much more that has to happen once the ball is snapped:
- Ability to see the ball and track it throughout the play (keeps his head up, ignores fakes and misdirection)
- Patience to let the play develop
- Impressive acceleration to move, flow with the action and shoot gaps when necessary
- Speed (chases down the screen/sweep game very effectively)
- Technique to shed blockers (uses his arms to keep blockers off his frame and move them aside)
- Avoiding the "trash" to focus on the play (is very savvy moving around, over or through things between him and the ball)
- Arriving with impact (shows ample power to square up and deliver a shot with leverage, stopping forward progress and often reversing it)
Reggie has all of these traits and skills in spades. Watching him roll all of them into a single unified effort and destroy a running play is a beautiful thing. He is a hunter against the run, always tracking the ball and relentlessly moving towards it to strike. When you combine that mentality with his physical prowess he is one of the best run defenders in the nation.
Ragland's weakness as a player can be identified using one criteria: is he facing the ball and moving forward or facing away from it and moving backwards? He's excellent when facing the ball but when he has to turn and run it all falls apart. The medium to deep pass is his Achilles' heel. His strength allows him to get a good jam on TE's to disrupt short routes at the line, but as soon as a receiver breaks and Reggie has to flip his hips to follow, it is largely over. He's simply not a very good coverage defender. He lacks the footwork and the natural instincts to stay with any receiver who has even average quickness. He is okay in zone coverage when he can drop and then play downhill (moving forward) against the passes in front of him, but in man-to-man he will routinely get beat. For comparison's sake, CJ Mosley (who was at Alabama last year and currently plays for the Ravens) was not quite as outstanding against the run as Ragland, but was a far superior coverage player.
Navarro Bowman was a similar player (a tough thumper who did not play the pass very well) when he was drafted out of Penn State. However as a pro, Bowman thrived in Vic Fangio's scheme and has become one of the best linebackers in the league. Could Reggie do the same? He certainly has the physical skills and football instincts to make it a possibility if he is paired with Fangio in Chicago next season.
Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are thriving in the pro game)
Kwon Alexander (MLB, Buccaneers) - I have had my eye on Alexander for the last month and this week he finally stepped up and demanded the top spot; so he's in it. Alexander massacred the Falcons on Sunday, with a pick, a forced fumble (that he ripped away from Julio Jones and returned), 11 tackles (that included some highlight reel shots) and a pass defended. All of this less than 48 hours after hearing that his 17 year-old brother had been shot and killed. Amazing. On the season he has 49 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 sack and that forced fumble.
Duke Johnson (RB, Browns) - One of things that really jumped off Duke Johnson's game tape last year was how polished he was as a receiver. I thought he was the best catching RB in the class and apparently Cleveland saw the same thing. Johnson only has 179 yards rushing this year but the Browns have adapted and started using him as a receiving threat. He's already racked up 33 catches for 331 yards and a TD. That's crazy production for a running back, not to mention a rookie. For comparison's sake, Matt Forte (who is a very good pass catcher in his own right) only has 219 yards this year.
Failure to Launch (slow starters on the NFL stage)
Greg Robinson (LT, Rams) - Highly drafted offensive tackles were a pretty sure thing in the NFL for quite a while, but that trend has been faltering for at least 3-4 years now. Robinson is just the latest example. Considered a little raw as a pass blocker but a dominating run blocker out of college, Robinson has experienced similar struggles to many of his early-draft-choice OL peers. His game this week was shaky on both fronts:
#Rams Film: LT Robinson got tossed around in run and pass blocking. Given his build, suggests major technique issues.— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) November 3, 2015
Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)
Context is everything: what works in college may not work in the NFL. Watching a player tear it up versus substandard competition may make him look like a superhero, but don't believe it. Case in point: if you watched Vic Beasley against North Carolina last year you would have thought he was the second coming of Lawrence Taylor. Turns out the LT from NC had no business being on the same field as Vic, and got roundly embarrassed. When Beasley went against LT talent that was headed to the NFL, he still made some plays but at a much, much lower rate. Always pay attention to the context.