Playing Williams over Bostic is short-sighted of Bears

Rookie linebacker needs on-the-job learning, not sitting behind stopgap veteran

Chicago Tribune beat writers Dan Wiederer and Rich Campbell preview the Bears' 2013 season opener Sunday against the Bengals. (Posted on: September 5, 2013)

During a recent informative, entertaining question-and-answer session with fans on the Bears' website, in which we learned Phil Emery gets by on a cup of black coffee for lunch, the team's general manager revealed his pregame ritual.

Emery likes taking 90-minute walks downtown before heading over to Soldier Field and even encouraged people who pass him Sunday morning to stop and chat.

So if you see a man wearing black horn-rimmed glasses wandering deep in thought near Millennium Park hours before the Bears and Bengals kick off the 2013 season, feel free to ask Emery this: Why would he allow middle linebacker D.J. Williams to replace Jon Bostic on the starting defense?

Come to think of it, why is Williams and his $1.75 million contract still on the roster if the Bears are as committed to player development as Emery made it sound?

On Labor Day, Emery delivered a detailed, defensible dissertation that included his philosophy on valuing draft picks, complete with his own analytics. Emery's implication was that the Bears needed a stronger commitment to developing homegrown players, a notion supported Thursday by an ESPN.com report. According to Elias, the Bears ranked 28th in the NFL with 31 players who have not appeared in a regular-season game for another team.

"I firmly believe the best way to build a team is your own original talent,'' Emery said Monday.

Two days later, the Bears defense opened the door to replacing a promising rookie second-round pick with a veteran on a one-year contract. The obvious contradiction sums up the delicate balance confronting the Bears between trying to win now and planning for later, a microcosm of the quest for synergy a GM and coach entering their first season together seek.

It also just seems wrong at this stage of Marc Trestman's regime.

While Williams missed all four exhibition games with a calf injury, Bostic made a lasting impression beyond big hits and plays. He quickly earned respect from opponents and teammates. Sure, Bostic blew coverages and assignments like every rookie. But you don't have to know as much about the position as Doug Buffone to realize the quickest way for Bostic to learn how to play linebacker in the NFL is on the job. Bostic's good outweighed the bad.

"He did what he was supposed to do,'' Lance Briggs said.

His reward? When Williams returned to practice, he assumed the starting position he has done little to earn. Williams built up NFL equity during nine seasons in Denver, but in Chicago we haven't seen enough to think Williams contributing to the present means more than Bostic improving for the future. Had the Bears kept reserve linebacker J.T. Thomas, a sixth-rounder in 2011, instead of Williams, Emery could have justified the move because of special teams needs, money and his own stated mantra.

Every snap Williams plays is one fewer Bostic progresses. For a linebacker, taking mental repetitions on the sideline just isn't the same as taking on a pulling guard on third-and-2. Which of those two players can you foresee starting at middle linebacker for the Bears in a Super Bowl? Start that man Sunday and the rest of the season.

"The good thing about Bostic is whether he's ready or not ready, he doesn't have to be right now,'' Briggs said.

But there is no reason to wait. Credit Trestman for trying to articulate how tricky it can be to marry game-day needs with long-term interests. The Bears did that nicely on the offensive line with veteran free agents Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson anchoring the left side opposite rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills on the right.

"I try to compartmentalize it,'' Trestman said. "We've got a 53(-man roster) and a 46. We're going to play the best guys during games that give us the best opportunity to win on that play and eventually in that game. Part of coaching is developing players, so I look at it as two separate issues.''

Trestman carefully avoided declaring Williams the starter, but Briggs sounded much more definitive — and a tad defensive — when I asked how effective a linebacker might be after missing the preseason.

"I did it,'' Briggs said, referring to the 2011 preseason. "Brian (Urlacher) did it.''

So now we're comparing Williams to two of the greatest Bears linebackers ever?

"I named two linebackers who have played in the league for a long time, (and) D.J. is one of those guys,'' Briggs said. "Let's clarify this. When we opened camp, D.J. was our starting middle linebacker. D.J. got injured, which gave an opportunity to Jon Bostic not only to showcase his skills but learn.''

Let's clarify something else: The Bears aren't going to catch the Packers by playing 31-year-old stopgap free agents ahead of high draft picks.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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