By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) When building rosters, NFL personnel men often talk about keeping their strengths a strength. For years, the Bears linebacking corps has been the rock, consistently leaned upon as a source of leadership and production on the field. Offseason shuffling – Brian Urlacher’s retirement, Nick Roach signing with Oakland – has stress tested this group.
Phil Emery reacted with force, dedicating more resources to the linebacker position than any other. Four starter-quality players were brought in, two quick fixes via free agency, DJ Williams (Broncos) and James Anderson (Panthers), and two long-term prospects via the draft, Jon Bostic (Florida) and Khaseem Greene (Rutgers).
Prior to the draft, I speculated the Bears would put an emphasis on coverage linebacker prospects, and Greene fits that mold. After playing two years at free safety, he was asked by head coach Greg Schiano to move to will-backer. Rutgers’ deficiencies against spread offenses was the impetus, and this move gave them more speed in the box and better coverage in the slot.
Greene responded with back-to-back Big East Defensive Player of the Year awards, and was named to the 2012 All-American team.
After reviewing several of Greene’s game tapes, here’s my summary of what impressed me, what didn’t impress me, areas for improvement, and what his prospects are for the 2013 season.
Playmaking abilities. Greene has a nose for the ball and a knack for jarring it loose when he arrives, which is a perfect fit for the Bears ball-hawking defense. His 15 forced fumbles are an all-time NCAA record, and he led the nation with 27 impact tackles (tackles on plays that result in less than two yards, and prevent either a first down or touchdown) in 2012.
Pass coverage. Greene is very fluid in coverage, showing loose hips that swivel with ease as he breaks in and out of his drops. Greene spies the quarterback well, trusting his eyes to guide him to the right area on the field. In a pass-happy league, teams will throw out of any personnel groupings and alignments, so Greene’s coverage skills are an asset.
Shedding blockers in the run game. Being a converted safety also has some drawbacks, and it occasionally affected Greene’s effectiveness in run support. Greene is a physical player who operates well in space, but he had difficulties disengaging from blockers – particularly lineman – once they got to his pads.
Can be slow out of his stance off the snap. At times, Greene was frozen in his stance after the ball was snapped, almost as if he thought he was still back at safety and had more time to react to the play. Playing linebacker brings players closer to the line of scrimmage, and speeds up their play recognition process. Greene must focus on being assignment sound and dedicated in film study to read his keys quicker.
Areas for Improvement
Upper body strength. At the combine, Greene had the lowest bench press (17 reps) for outside linebackers, and it showed up on film. Greene struggled to free himself up when engaged with blockers. Developing more muscle tone and upper body strength will be a big part of Greene’s early physical development process.
Hand fighting. Tied to upper body strength, Greene needs to become more violent with this hands at the point of attack. It’s essential for linebackers to scrape, and occupy a blocker to set an edge and force the play back inside (where the help is). So, Greene must learn to deliver the first blow to jar a blocker and keep himself in the play, instead of getting washed out.
Prospects for 2013
Greene’s play style and body type are a perfect fit for a 4-3 will-backer. With Lance Briggs – the best 4-3 will-backer in the NFL – under contract this year and next, the odds of Greene starting immediately are slim. Greene’s nose for the ball and ball-punching skills bode well for him to make an impact on special teams coverage units.
Greene’s versatility showed up on film. Coaches freely used him in the slot to cover the third receiver up the field, as an edge pass rusher, and (effectively) blitzed him through the A and B-gaps. Seeing that defensive coordinator Mel Tucker likes to blitz his will-backer in passing situations, Greene’s knack for getting to the quarterback on blitzes will be utilized.
The linebacking corps will look drastically different in 2013, and there’s a fair chance neither rookie will start immediately. Looking ahead, if Bostic and Greene carry their collegiate success over to the NFL, the Bears linebackers could once again become that rock.
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