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Bears Fri Oct 17 2014

Should the Bears Consider Some New Starters?

Chicago BearsIt's very difficult for a starter to get supplanted in-season. There typically has to be an injury involved, lack of improvement, solid play by replacements or some combination of all three.

The Bears have dealt with each of those this year. A season-ending injury to Charles Tillman forced rookie Kyle Fuller into playing every down instead of just the nickel packages. The nickel corner is essentially a starter in today's three-receiver NFL, which meant that Isaiah Frey was the next man up. Frey didn't play well in the three games he subbed in, and showed no improvement from his full season of play last year. The Bears had depth behind him in Sherrick McManis, Demontre Hurst, and Al Louis-Jean, so Frey got cut and Hurst stepped in. McManis might end up as the nickel once he's healthy, but it was one of the rare occurrences where the starter got the axe.

That's not the only spot where there's been injuries, starter struggles, and successful backups though. Some folks have called for new blood at a few positions, and there are a few legitimate arguments to be made. Here's a breakdown of those debates, and what the Bears should consider doing.

Michael Ola at RT over Jordan Mills

The starting offensive line is practicing together for the first time since before the opener against Buffalo. Roberto Garza and Matt Slauson missed time with ankle sprains, and Jermon Bushrod missed a couple games with a leg injury that happened during practice (from what the Bears claim). Mills missed practice earlier this week after aggravating the foot injury that knocked him out of the finale last year, and most of this preseason, but was back yesterday. He's also been really bad at football.

Last week's game against Atlanta was one of Mills' worst games as a pro. He shined in camp last year, and unexpectedly won the starting job. He shouldn't be keeping it any longer though. Mills allowed a sack, a hit, and six hurries on Sunday (according to Pro Football Focus) along with getting flagged twice for penalties. He's tied for fourth worst in the league in sacks allowed, and second worst in hurries. This after his 2013 rookie season that saw him allow the fourth most QB hits and was by far the worst in the league in hurries allowed.

His run defense isn't nearly as bad, but he's negatively ranked by PFF in that category again this year after a similar performance last season. He also has double the penalties already then he did in all of 2013. Aaron Kromer said yesterday that Mills has played "20 good football games for the Chicago Bears." That number is flat out false, considering he's earned just six positive games in his career from PFF, a stat website the Bears use and take into consideration for player evaluations.

Michael Ola hasn't been outstanding, but he's done admirably filling in at both LG and LT, and a couple outstanding performances at guard have given him a positive grade on the season. He's allowed only one sack and one hit (on a beautiful stunt in San Francisco), and has been flagged for just one penalty. He filled in at RT during the preseason, so he's familiar with playing on that side. Mills hasn't improved after 22 starts, and there's a good chance he gets lit up against Cameron Wake this Sunday. Maybe that will be enough for a change to be made -- hopefully Mills doesn't cost the team a victory in the meantime.

Brian de la Puente at C over Roberto Garza

Garza was excellent in the Falcons game because of some great run and screen blocking, but he still has some trouble anchoring against a nose tackle that lines up straight across from him. He gets pushed back into the face of Jay Cutler a little more than you'd like, but he graded out positively on the whole last year, and is one of the most respected guys on the team. That doesn't mean his performance should be ignored, but I don't think it's been bad enough to swap him out if he's healthy. His communication and line calls are important to making sure everyone knows their jobs pre-snap.

The one thing that's overly irritating is Garza will have one or two shotgun snaps per game that are at Cutler's feet, which completely ruins the timing of Marc Trestman's plays, and also takes the QBs eyes off defenders downfield. Even if Cutler does get off a throw, they typically aren't as good because he doesn't have time to scan the field and diagnose coverages.

de la Puente is the heir apparent at center, but he's also the primary backup at guard too. He'll get his chance to start next year when Garza likely retires, and if one of the guards does get hurt, it's a lot easier to just plug de la Puente in, as opposed to having him slide over to guard, and Garza then sub in at center.

Darryl Sharpton at MLB over D.J. Williams

Sharpton played incredibly well considering he wasn't even on the team a few weeks ago. He overran a couple of plays, but was instinctive and aggressive. He was the best run defending inside linebacker in the NFL last season (PFF), but got released by Houston and Washington because he's injury prone and is terrible against the pass. If he were to supplant Williams, he'd come out in nickel packages (like Williams does) to minimize opponents trying to exploit him.

Williams actually ranks as the Bears worst defensive player on the season, but I don't think he's been quite that bad. He makes the right reads pretty much all the time, but he doesn't have the speed or strength that he once did to take on and shed blockers. I'd probably leave Williams in as the starter for now, but if he struggles more than he is already, it might be a worthy change for Mel Tucker to consider.

Christian Jones at SLB over Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic

Jones is a physical beast, and he's done a really nice job in spot duty. That being said, Tucker has smartly kept Jones' job extremely simple. He also hasn't had to face a team that likes to run a lot of play action, which is where you could see Jones getting exposed. Sure, McClellin hasn't been great at defending rollouts either, but before injuring his hand, he played a really great game against San Francisco. If that's the guy we see the rest of the season, you could call his move to linebacker a moderate success.

In my opinion, Bostic has been the Bears most consistent linebacker all season long. Even on plays where he's not in on the tackle, he's done a phenomenal job at filling the proper holes, and meeting blockers right at the point of attack to slow down the opponent's running back. It's a very underrated portion of the position, and he's been light years better at doing it this season than in 2013. He should remain a starter -- no questions asked.

Brock Vereen at FS over Chris Conte

Conte is the most talented safety on the roster, and he's played like it too. Though he's still missing some tackles, he's done a really nice job in pass coverage both playing the ball, and hitting the receiver legally to separate the ball from the player. Him being the best safety does say quite a bit about how bad the team is at that position.

Conte's problem is that he just can't stay healthy. He's had a history of concussions, and has missed time this year and last with injuries to both shoulders. Every time he makes a hit leading with his shoulder, you wonder whether or not he's going to get up. He's missed plays during every game this season, but he does seem to bounce back quickly and makes himself available the next week.

Vereen had an opportunity during camp to grab a starting gig, and never did. Sure, that's difficult to do as a fourth-round rookie, but he fell behind a number of guys on the depth chart quickly. He did a great job in San Francisco filling in at nickel corner in a pinch, but struggled on a couple of big plays against the Falcons last week. The opportunity is there, but Vereen hasn't played well enough to take advantage. If Conte wants to suit up despite all the injuries, he's the best player at the position.

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Josh / October 17, 2014 12:55 PM

It says a lot that Bostic has been the best LB. As you mention he's been fairly consistent filling channels to bottle up the opposing run game, but he's been a complete garbage fire in pass coverage. Lance Briggs should probably be euthanized at this point also.

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