It’s early in Phil Emery’s tenure as Bears head personnel man and his roster decisions are still very much in question. Seemingly good moves – Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett, Jermon Bushrod – are stacked up against seemingly bad moves – Shea McClellin, Brandon Hardin, Jason Campbell. And, squeezed in the middle, are plenty of questionable ones like first round selection Kyle Long and new head coach Marc Trestman. These moves will marinate over the next couple seasons and then fans and media alike can render a verdict on his decision-making prowess. Emery’s early focal points are telling, with a rebuilt offensive line, new passing weapons, athletic defensive linemen, and linebackers, young and old, headed to Soldier Field. Of all the roster reshuffling, it’s the linebacker selections that may very well miss the mark. The typically analytical GM may be overly influenced by Chicago’s deep rooted history of linebackers, pouring valuable draft picks and, eventually, free agent cash into a position that doesn’t have a major impact on Sundays.
Don’t misunderstand the point. Linebackers are important in football. These three or four men that aid a pass rush, track down running backs and protect the short midfield improve an average defense. But the linebacker position means much more to a 3-4 scheme than the 4-3 version that Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker employs. It’s true, the Cover-2 defense needs athletic linebackers for deep, midfield drops. But, while Tucker isn’t changing much from last year’s defensive playbook, it will evolve over time and Lovie Smith’s antiquated scheme will be utilized less-and-less in Chicago. A 3-4 defense needs backers like Clay Matthews and Terrell Suggs and DeMarcus Ware to cause disruption in the backfield and smother tight ends. The Cowboys are switching from a 3-4 to 4-3 scheme under new DC Monte Kiffin. But will Ware remain a stand up rush linebacker? No chance. His transition to defensive end proves most 4-3 schemes don’t need stand outs at the position to succeed. Elite 4-3 linebackers like Patrick Willis are the rare exception. General managers of 4-3 teams know its success is predicated on great tackles, ends and cornerbacks. Adequate linebackers and safeties must handle their assignments but aren’t put in a position to make many game changing plays, comparatively. The four, hands-in-the-dirt linemen create havoc in the backfield, sacking quarterbacks, forcing rushed passes and disrupting running lanes. Cornerbacks reroute wideouts and capitalize on poorly thrown passes. The Sam, Will and Mike – strongside, weakside and middle – linebackers mostly clean up messes, tackling misdirected running backs and preventing tight ends and receivers from racking up ‘yards after the catch’ on short passes. Having top-tier linebackers like Urlacher and Briggs was logical in Lovie Smith’s defense. But Smith is no longer roaming the sidelines in Chicago and, soon enough, there will be zero remnants of his Cover-2 scheme, making the linebacker position less valuable in the next great Bears defense.
George Halas drafted Dick Butkus. Jim Finks choose Mike Singletary. Mark Hatley selected Brian Urlacher. Jerry Angelo drafted Lance Briggs. Phil Emery’s ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl but, secondarily, he quietly hopes to find the next great linebacker to carve into Bear Rushmore. Emery has only scratched the surface of what he’ll likely do to find the next Brian Urlacher. Signing one year stop gaps, James Anderson and D.J. Williams, were meant to keep the position respectable during an inflection point on the defensive side of the ball. Neither are in the long-term blueprint but both, assuming Williams stays off the suspension list, present themselves as veterans that will do their jobs and minimize mistakes. The general manager’s true first step in finding the next Pro Bowl linebacker came in the 2013 draft with the selection of Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, in the second and fourth rounds respectively. While Emery could have infused some youth in the cornerback position – perhaps David Amerson, Jamar Taylor or Robert Alford – or add another offensive or defensive lineman, the GM invested valuable picks in a position that won’t generate a decent rate of return come this fall. If all goes according to plan, Bostic and Greene will learn from the sidelines and then step into starting roles come 2014. But early round picks, especially second rounders like Bostic, need to make an impact right away. Just ask Jerry Angelo. Phil Emery shows the promise of a smart, forward thinking front office leader. But early returns tell Bear fans that there may be a weakness to appease an ownership and fan base that crave a sideline-to-sideline, tackling machine that continues the storied tradition of great linebackers in Chicago.