When Vic Fangio’s defenses were at their best in San Francisco, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman were roaming the middle of the field. While the Bears have one of their linebacker spots filled with Danny Trevathan, they need another playmaker beside him after cutting Jerrell Freeman.
The Bears could certainly fill this hole in the first round by selecting either Tremaine Edmunds or Roquan Smith. But with other needs and potentially better prospects on the board, the Bears could choose to wait to get their guy.
The next two best prospects at the position are Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State and Rashaan Evans from Alabama. Both are talented, ascending players but will most likely be mid-to-late first-round picks. If either fell to the Bears in the second round, they would make excellent additions, but this is highly unlikely.
Who are some players outside of the first round the Bears might be interested in?
Fred Warner, BYU
Warner was a four-star recruit out of California before enrolling at Brigham Young University. The three-year starter and team captain led the Cougars in tackles both of the last two seasons. Over his four year career, he accumulated 264 tackles, 6.5-sacks and seven interceptions.
Opinions vary on Warner, but if you ask me, he is the next best inside linebacker after the first-round prospects. He was used unconventionally at BYU, lining up as almost a slot cornerback or box safety alignment on most plays, but he has the size, instincts and athleticism you want in a linebacker prospect.
Strength: Coverage Ability
Warner is a perfect linebacker for today’s NFL because his biggest strength is in the passing game. As mentioned above, he lined up more in a hybrid safety/linebacker role at BYU so he has learned how to diagnose pass plays and excels in zone coverage. He is exceptional at reading the quarterback’s eyes and movements to put himself in the best position to make a play.
With three wide receivers to his left, he starts shading that direction once the ball is snapped. And when the quarterback starts rolling right, he immediately knows where the ball is going. He knows he has man coverage over the top so he stays in the underneath zone to pick off the pass.
Warner shows the ability to backpedal and has the fluid hips of a safety. But he also plays downhill and reacts quickly to plays in front of him.
In the play above, he starts in zone coverage and sees a crossing route in front of him. As soon as the quarterback starts his delivery, Warner has already planted his back foot and is breaking for the receiver. His above average athleticism allows him to close quickly and pick off the pass.
Overall in coverage he has the athletic ability and fluidity to cover ground off the line of scrimmage and get to his marks in zone coverage. He also should have no issue covering tight ends and running backs in man coverage.
Strength: Good Angles in Run Support
Warner will get drafted high because of his ability in the pass game. In the run game, he works best as a weakside linebacker. So Trevathan would play the mike linebacker position, while Warner would occupy the will linebacker position.
As the will, linebacker, Warner will be tasked with chasing down ball carriers while, hopefully, the defensive line and other linebacker take up blocks to keep Warner free to roam.
In the play above, Warner is unblocked but takes a good angle to the ball carrier allowing him to make the tackle. Warner rarely runs himself out of plays or into blockers unnecessarily. If he can be kept clean, he can utilize his 4.6 speed and lateral agility to be an above average linebacker in the run game. The Bears duo of Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks have the size and ability necessary to eat up double teams, keeping blockers off of Warner which will allow his instincts to shine.
Weaknesses: Block Shedding
Warner biggest struggles come from disengaging from offensive lineman in the run game. As mentioned above, he is best suited as a will linebacker to avoid blockers, but that is not always the case. He will need to get stronger at the point of attack in order to become reliable on early downs.
At just over 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds with 32-inch arms he has the size and adequate length to improve in this regard. With better coaching he should be able to refine his hand technique and become average at shedding blocks.
While he has his limitations in run support, he can still improve in this area. But the reason he will get drafted his due to his ability in coverage. Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkowski’s strength is in the run game so pairing them with a linebacker with Warner’s coverage ability is a match made in heaven.
He will need to get used to playing inside more as he was used primarily in a nickel role, but he shows all the athletic traits and skills that will translate inside.
While he is not as highly regarded as the top prospects at the positions, he would make an excellent selection for the Bears in Round 2.
Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama
While his teammate Evans is getting all the love, Hamilton has been a solid contributor for the Crimson Tide. The six-foot, 228-pound linebacker was a three-year starter for Nick Saban. Unfortunately, two of his years were cut short due to injuries. But when he did play he was effective accumulating 134 tackles, 16-tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, and two interceptions in his career.
Alabama players are always well coached and usually able to step in right away. Hamilton was a team captain during his years in Tuscaloosa, a high honor considering the caliber of players surrounding him. As long as he is healthy, it would not surprise me to see him starting, and succeeding Day 1 for the Bears.
Strengths: Football IQ
What stands out when watching Hamilton is his intelligence and football acumen. He is rarely caught out of position and his above-average instincts allow him to sniff out plays quicker than most defenders.
In this play, his key is the left tackle pulling. This tells him it is an outside zone run. He trusts his eyes and explodes through the line, beating the left tackle to the spot and gets into the backfield untouched. He doesn’t make the tackle himself but his disruption forced the play back inside where the defensive line cleans up.
His football intelligence is apparent in the run game, but even more so when he is asked to drop into coverage.
You can see he signals before the play, presumably changing the play. The opposing team sells play action left, but Hamilton reads play action and is able to flip his hips, locate the crossing receiver and lock down the play. Hamilton diagnoses plays as quick as anyone in this class and that is a skill which directly translates to the NFL level.
Hamilton did not work out at the combine due to injury, and did not participate in Alabama’s pro day either. But his athleticism on tape is evident. He is a bit undersized by traditional standards, but for today’s NFL, his athleticism will allow him to win despite his lack of size and length.
Again his intelligence is on display here, but what is more impressive is he is able to run down Ronald Jones, one of the most athletic running backs in the draft.
His instincts combined with his speed, quick feet, and lateral agility could make him a solid starter with a potential for more as long as he can …
… Stay healthy. It is hard, and probably unfair, to call this a “weakness” because it isn’t really his fault. But is is the biggest reason he is not a more highly regarded prospect.
A torn ACL ended his 2016 season while a fractured patella cost him time in 2017. Two serious injuries to the same knee in such a short period of time are a huge concern, even if everything on tape suggests he should be a Day 2 pick. But it could also mean the Bears can get a steal later on just as they did…
…In last years draft when Ryan Pace selected another oft-injured defensive player from Alabama. That pick turned into one of his better selections in Eddie Jackson. The Bears could get a similar impact from a mid-round player with Hamilton.
Unlike Warner, Hamilton doesn’t have one elite skill that will help him stand out from the crowd, but he is a much more well-rounded player. This will allow him to play both the will and mike linebacker positions. This interchangeability with Trevathan will keep offenses guessing on the Bears defensive alignment.
If Chicago is fine with his medicals, he could be a target on the third day of the draft. It is hard to find instant starters that late, but Hamilton might be that guy.
Darius Leonard, South Carolina State
As we know, Pace is not afraid to draft small school prospects as long as they dominate their competition. And linebacker Darius Leonard certainly dominated at South Carolina State.
Leonard did a little bit of everything for the Bulldogs on his way to earning MEAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2016 and 2017 with a combined 238 tackles, 26.5 for loss, 12 sacks, four interceptions, eight pass breakups, and five forced fumbles. He was invited to the Senior Bowl where he had a game-high 14 tackles.
He lined up at both will and mike linebacker while also rushing from the edge at times. While he won’t be asked to rush the passer much in the pros, he has shown he has the versatility Fangio likes. He could replace Christian Jones who was used in a variety of different ways in Chicago.
Although he ran only an average 4.7 40-yard dash, on tape Leonard showcases true sideline-to-sideline speed to bring down ball carriers outside the numbers. He takes very sudden steps which allows him to easily change direction while moving laterally or working through the line of scrimmage. His elite short area burst allows him to work in a phone booth and mirror ball carriers when dealing with running back cut-back opportunities.
Here Leonard shows off his athleticism to run down a running back from behind. He was able to avoid the blocker, track down the ball carrier, and bring him down with just one arm. His tackling technique could use some work here but he shows the strength and athleticism you want out of a draft pick.
Again he shows off his sideline-to-sideline speed. Leonard also shows the ability to use his length in order to get off blocks and keep his feet clean. At over 34-inches, he has some of the longest arms at the position. And he uses them to his advantage at the point of attack. Leonard will need to be more consistent shedding blocks, but he has shown he has the length and ability to do so.
weakness: Instincts and Consistency
Leonard is a see hole, hit hole defender.
He is quick to diagnose run and trusts his keys in order to make plays. What gets him into trouble at times is when he over pursues. He will sometime overrun the play or get drawn in too far on play actions. If he can learn to play more under control and better diagnose plays he can develop into a solid starter down the road.
He also needs to become more consistent. This will come with more playing time and better coaching. At South Carolina State, he did not have the top-notch training programs and coaching he will receive at the NFL level. Once the coaches get their hands on him, they should be able to mold him into a more consistent and complete player.
Because of the lower level of competition he faced, Leonard might not be as ready to start as the other two linebackers, but he could sit behind Trevathan and Kwiatkowski for a year before stepping into a starters role in Year 2. His athleticism and upside will mean he will get drafted before he should, but he would still be good value late day two or early day three.
But just because he won’t be starting doesn’t mean he won’t make an impact for the Bears. He should be able to contribute in nickel packages and won’t kill them if he is forced into starting duty. He should also provide good special teams value due to his athleticism.
All of these prospects bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the table. They are different in many ways but all of them would give the Bears a solid starter with room for more. They might not be as polished as the top-tier prospects, but the Bears clearly can use their first-round pick for other needs and still fill their need at inside linebacker.
15 years ago these prospects would have been late-round picks at best. But in today’s NFL, linebackers need to be able to cover just as well as they can tackle. The Bears need to put a premium on these types of players to pair with Trevathan.
The Bears have one really good linebacker in Trevathan, and if they can find a way to pair him with one of the players above, Fangio will be having flashbacks to his Super Bowl defenses in San Francisco.