With just three players left to trim on the Bears final roster and a good chance one or two will be on offense, the Bears defense is set to open the season almost exactly the way we expected it to on our first day in Bourbonnais.
The Bears return eight of their 12 2012 starters on defense with the only changes being Corey Wootton over Israel Indonije at left end, Jonathan Bostic for Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker, James Anderson for Nick Roach at strong side linebacker and Isaiah Frey for Kelvin Hayden at nickel back.
None of the new starters are improvements over 2012 but when you consider the Bears were one of the top five defenses in the league last year they don’t have to be better, they just need to be as good.
Assuming Henry Melton makes a full recovery from the concussion that cost him the second half of the preseason the Bears should be marginally better at tackle. While both Melton and Stephen Paea were the starters last year, both are youngsters who should still be ascending and able to take another step forward this year and Nate Collins is extremely solid as the number three.
End is a bit more of a concern. Julius Peppers was limited in training camp but appears able to still perform at an All Pro level. Wootton will actually share playing time with Shea McClellin and early in camp it appeared Wootton could be the breakout player of the year. Then he suffered a few nagging injuries as he has been want to do throughout his career, and McClellin has shown little sign of progress.
Indonije was actually the team’s leading tackler on the defensive line and second leading pass rusher with Wootton and McClellin also getting significant playing time so it’s unclear how that production will be replaced.
It looks as if Cornelius Washington will be the fourth end but that is based strictly on athletic ability and as a prospect, he does not appear ready to make any significant contributions yet.
Lance Briggs looked great in training camp and preseason and could be set for another All Pro season. He won’t be as good as Urlacher was calling the signals but he shouldn’t be a problem either. And James Anderson will be at least close to an even trade for Roach if not all the way there.
Concerns at linebacker focus on Jonathan Bostic and D.J. Williams in the middle. Bostic is a rookie with great upside and no experience and Williams is a dependable veteran with great athleticism who missed the entire preseason and at 31, we are uncertain if all his athletic ability is still there.
When Bostic lines up against the Bengals on opening day it will be the first time a quality NFL offense has schemed to attack him and the first real indication we’ll have of just how ready he is or isn’t. It’s a huge question mark going into the season.
Williams at least offers excellent depth which the Bears do not have at either of the outside linebacker spots where rookie Khaseem Greene, who is even more raw than Bostic appears to be the next man up.
The secondary will be better than last year as Chris Conte and Major Wright appear a ton more confident in their second season together at safety and Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings are both still at the top of their games.
Like Bostic at the “mike,” Frey is a wild card at nickel back and he may not really be tested until week five vs. the Saints as Cincinnati, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Detroit are all thin when it comes to second and third receiving options. Tillman will again be charged with taking away number one.
If Zack Bowman’s hamstring allows him to he’ll provide a nice security blanket.
This “D” could be great again, but Peppers, Briggs and Tillman cannot afford to act their ages and Wootton, McClellin, Bostic and Frey all have to make significant contributions.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.