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Bears could strike gold in search for a linebacker
It’s not unusual for a team like the Bears to interview a prospect they have little or no chance of getting with the 20th pick of the first round of the NFL draft. But the fact that Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones — projected to go anywhere from fifth overall to 15th in most mock drafts –listed the Bears as one of the four teams to talk to him Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is at least a little intriguing.
Regardless of Brian Urlacher’s status for 2013, the Bears need a linebacker. And more than any other position, the possible selection of a linebacker in the first or second round would tell more about the direction the Bears are going on defense under Mel Tucker than any other position.
With Urlacher and Lance Briggs entrenched as anchors in Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 defense, the Bears have been content to fill the other spot with a generic, cost-effective strongside linebacker — Hunter Hillenmeyer, Nick Roach, Pisa Tinoisamoa. The Bears have never even been tempted to draft a young, dynamic, playmaking linebacker. And they all but gave up on the idea of drafting any linebackers since striking out with Jamar Williams (fourth round in 2006) and Michael Okwo (third-round in 2007).
That figures to change under Marc Trestman. When Tucker said, ”Right now, we’re going to be a 4-3 [alignment],” last week, the operative phrase was ”right now.” It sure sounded like Tucker has big plans for eventual change, perhaps sooner than later.
An the place to start with big plans on defense in today’s NFL is with versatile linebackers — the best of whom seem to be either converted safeties or converted defensive ends who provide defenses with the element of surprise that seems to make the difference at the highest level.
The Bears were the polar opposite of that in Lovie Smith’s Cover-2. They did what they do and it’s up to opponents to figure out a way to beat it. That worked tremendously against the Rams and Cowboys and Jaguars and Panthers and Titans and Cardinals. But not against the 49ers, who tore it to the Bears to shreds with a first-time starting quarterback. And not against Aaron Rodgers, who was more than willing to take what the Bears were giving and avoid the big mistakes that Sam Bradford and Tony Romo and Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton and Matt Hasselbeck and Ryan Lindley could not.
Briggs is still one of the best linebackers in the NFL. But he’s a dinosaur as a linebacker who is primarily a tackling machine. That he had one of his best seasons in 2012 and did not make the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2004 in favor of three pass-rushing linebackers with a combined 44 sacks (Aldon Smith, DeMarcus Ware and Clay Matthews) was an injustice, but perhaps also a signal that there is a new standard for defensive prowess in the NFL.
We’ll know in April if the Bears’ new coaching staff already has gotten that message. Regardless of whether they get the next Aldon Smith, Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs, they need something. With that in mind, here are some of the more intriguing possibilities if the Bears decide to upgrade their linebacker corps:
Jarvis Jones, 6-3, 240, Georgia — a superior athlete with great one-on-one skills, he thrived as a pass rusher in Georgia’s 3-4 defense but also is suited for a 4-3. He has a medical issue –he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis as a freshman at USC and was barred from playing football for health reasons. But he got the OK at Georgia and played two standout seasons without incident.
”I think I bring versatility to the team,” Jones said. ”I can play Sam linebacker. I can play Will linebacker. I can play 4-3. I can play a 3-4. I’m just gonna get after you. I’m gonna get after the QB every play.”
Alec Ogletree, 6-3, 235, Georgia –Scouts agree he has superstar potential as an athletic inside linebacker with great coverage ability. He played safety as a freshman.
The character issue might be the only thing that drops him far enough in the first round for the Bears to have a shot. Ogletree was suspended four games in 2012 for failing a drug test. He added a DUI arrest two weeks ago to an already checkered past. But he sounded contrite and like a changed man in his media interview at the Combine on Saturday.
”I’m a good person at heart,” Ogletree said. ”Everybody makes mistakes. I feel real bad about the situation. I’m learning from it and I’m moving forward.
Ogletree has the athleticism to combat the mobility of quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
”I think that’s a big part of my game,” Ogletree said. ”I like to play sideline to sideline. I try to use my speed to my advantage. When I can strike somebody, I do that.”
Manti Te’o, 6-1, 248, Notre Dame –Not a show-stopper, but his versatility, instincts and range give him a chance to excel at any linebacker position. The character flaw exposed by the girlfriend hoax episode is unlikely to be an issue for NFL teams. His performance against Alabama in the National Championship Game is a bigger issue. Te’o was unprepared to face Alabama’s speed and aggressiveness, but he learns well and figures to adjust better when he faces it on a regular basis in the NFL.
”I think what I bring to the table is a lot of heart, a lot of energy and somebody that works hard. Somebody who hates to lose,” Te’o said. ”I always say, ‘I hate losing more than I love to win.’ The reason why I love to win is because I don’t have to go through that feeling of losing. It’s those times where I lose that feeling that will stick with me.
”I tell [NFL teams], ‘You’ll always get somebody who’s humble, works hard, doesn’t say much and will do everything it takes to win.”’
Other possibilities include Kevin Minter (6-2, 240), LSU; Dion Jordan (6-6, 239), Oregon; Khaseem Greene (6-1, 230), Rutgers; Arthur Brown (6-1, 224), Kansas State; and Kevin Riddick (6-2, 246), North Carolina.