Some of the current Chicago Bears’ linebacking corps won’t be able to continue playing in Chicago due to the team’s switch from a 3-4 base to a 4-3, while some others should be able to thrive. Whether that’s in a new position or a new role, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Bears transition the roster. Head coach Matt Eberflus has been through this same traisition a few times in his career, so he and his coaching staff will have a sound plan in place, but they’ll also be versatile enough to play to the strengths of the players.
“Will we have elements and pieces of a 3-4? Sure, we’ll have that,” Eberflus said at his initial press conference. “We’re going to adjust and move and be flexible. We’re going to look at the talent and the skill level of the players we have and we’re going to coach and develop those guys, and we’ll fit our scheme around those players.”
Ideally the Bears will have a stud at the weakside linebacker spot (the Will), as he’s the playmaker in this scheme. The Mike (middle linebacker), needs to be versatile enough to plug up the run and drop into his zone coverage, and the Sam (strongside linebacker) is an edge setter that needs some versatility to play the pass too.
Most of the Bears outside linebackers are moving to a hand in the dirt defensive end, and I’ll address those tomorrow, but here’s how I see the inside linebackers shaping up.
In this 12-part series I’ll be listing the contract status of all the current Bears players on a position by position basis, while speculating on some offseason moves that could happen.
Roquan Smith - Signed through 2023 - Roquan is going to be fine whichever position he ends up playing, but it does seem like he’ll be moving to the Will. That’s not to say he couldn’t be great at the Mike, but his speed and athleticism makes him a natural fit for that spot. The weakside linebacker is the premier linebacking position in this defense and Smith is the best current linebacker on the roster by a wide margin.
Danny Trevathan - Signed through 2022 - Thanks to void years Trevathan’s deal technically runs through 2025, so when they do want out of his contract they’ll have $6,493,750 in void money to deal with. His cap hit this year is about $5.7 million and making him a post June 1 cut would save them nearly $3.3 million, but the accounting of all that void money gets tricky. Health has been an issue for the soon to be 32-year old, but since he’s under contract I could see the Bears trying to sneak out one more year from him to play the Mike.
Alec Ogletree - Free agent - Ogletree did play some 4-3 linebacker in the past, but with him out of contract (and no void money) I think the Bears let him go.
Joel Iyiegbuniwe - Free Agent - Iggy seems to be resigned to his fate of being elsewhere in 2022. He already made a statement on social media about a fresh start with a different team, so I can’t see him coming back.
Caleb Johnson - Signed through 2023 - Johnson flashed last year on special teams, and I’m curious to see where the new regime envisions him lining up on D. His college film shows a lot of him making plays from the middle, and that might be his best pro position.
Christian Jones - Free agent - Jones has plenty of experience playing in a 4-3 defense, but at 31-years old he may not be in Chicago’s future plans.
Ledarius Mack - Signed a Reserve/Futures contract - I thought about putting L. Mack with the defensive line, but at 6’1”, 237 pounds he just seems too light to consistently play with his hand in the dirt. His best fit may be as a Sam that occasionally can rush the passer, but he’s a longshot to even make the team in 2022.
UPDATE: Noah Dawkins - Signed on February 22 - Dawkins has been a special teamer most of his three year career, but he’ll be looking to secure a reserve spot at outside linebacker for the Bears.
2022 OUTLOOK - The Bears could get by this year by plugging this position with a vet or two, and if they look to the Colts for a player that knows the scheme then Zaire Franklin makes a lot of sense. The 25-year old, former 7th round pick will be due for a nice raise, but he’d be able to lock down the strongside and be a core special teamer for a few years. Indianapolis also has Matthew Adams, who was picked in that same 7th round with Franklin, that could come in and help the transition. He doesn’t have as much starting experience as Franklin does, but 4 years in Matt Eberflus’ system would certainly help him out.
Another player that has played for Eberflus is Anthony Walker Jr., who played last season on a 1-year, $3 million deal with the Browns. If he’s looking for a longer term contract he could make sense for the Bears to sign and plug right into the Mike for the next few years. In his 3 seasons playing for Eberflus, Walker averaged over 100 tackles each year while starting 46 games.
As for the NFL Draft, I wouldn’t even look to linebacker until day three. If they do address it in free agency, then I wouldn't bother with one in the draft this year at all. Teams can find decent depth ILBs in the UDFA market, so I’d expect them to do just that.
How do you see the Bears lining up at the Will, Mike, and Sam in 2022?