Bears' NFL draft preview: Inside linebackers

With the switch to a 3-4 defense, should Bears target an inside linebacker in the draft?

As the NFL draft nears we're taking a position-by-position look at what's out there and what the Bears need.

Bears status

Linebacker deficiencies have been a major reason for the Bears defense's struggles the last two seasons. The mix of aging veterans and undeveloped youngsters has been insurmountable at times. In that sense, it's ironic the Bears are transitioning to a linebacker-based front. Jon Bostic hasn't blossomed into a playmaker befitting his second-round draft pedigree. Four-year veteran Mason Foster could end up being one of the best value adds in all of free agency. He's a proven run stopper and can make plays in the passing game when healthy.

Level of draft need: Moderate

Signing Foster to a one-year, minimum-salary benefit contract built depth from the top down. It gives the Bears flexibility not to draft an inside linebacker. As it stands, the competition for four roster spots is crowded, if not overly talented. As an undrafted rookie last season, Christian Jones was their most athletic inside linebacker. He could beat out former first-rounder Shea McClellin if he can learn the scheme and play fast. Khaseem Greene and DeDe Lattimore are also in the mix.

Top prospect

Eric Kendricks, UCLA

6-0, 232 pounds

Worth a look: In a draft without high-end inside linebacker prospects, Kendricks could be available midway through the second round. The two-year college captain is lauded for his character and leadership. His production shows on video — his 481 tackles are most in UCLA history. He's sharp in diagnosing running plays and getting downhill. He's a sure tackler, and he demonstrates good instincts in pass coverage.

Stay away: He isn't dominant at the point of attack, and he's a bit undersized, which makes him more of a prototypical weak-side linebacker in a 4-3, rather than a 3-4 inside linebacker.

Intriguing options

Stephone Anthony, Clemson

6-3, 243 pounds

Worth a look: Anthony's measurables are excellent. His height, weight and speed fit what's required of the position, and his 321/2-inch arms are a good length. He's balanced and powerful at the point of attack and has good straight-line speed to track the ball.

Stay away: He must make significant strides mentally to be a high-impact player, specifically in diagnosing plays and taking favorable angles to the ball. He can be overaggressive in pursuit. He can improve his blocking leverage and his ability to turn and run in pass coverage.

Denzel Perryman, Miami

5-11, 236 pounds

Worth a look: Another projected Day 2 pick, Perryman has a thick, stout frame that helps him win blocks with power and leverage. He's a sure tackler who limits yards after contact, and he forced seven fumbles in four college seasons. He has the rugged, tough attitude associated with a linebacker.

Stay away: Speed is a question for Perryman, although he lowered his 40-yard dash time from 4.78 seconds at the combine to 4.66 seconds at his pro day. His coverage skills are in doubt because of speed and lack of suddenness. He's a bit short and isn't long.

Paul Dawson, Texas Christian

6-0, 235 pounds

Worth a look: Dawson reads and reacts extremely well. His agility shows in how he avoids blockers on the second level. He's fluid when changing directions, and he excels in pass coverage. He's smooth covering running backs in space, and his vision helps him clog passing lanes.

Stay away: Dawson ran the 40-yard dash slower than 4.7 seconds at his pro day after running a 4.93 at the combine. In a pre-draft diary for USA Today, he admitted to being "tardy a lot" for meetings and weight room sessions at TCU. He said coach Gary Patterson believes he's a "knucklehead."

Sleeper

Taiwan Jones, Michigan State

6-3, 245 pounds

Worth a look: Jones is a powerful, tough linebacker at his best when attacking downhill without having to think too much. His size is impressive, and his upper body is strong enough to shed blocks. His 34-inch arms are sure to impress the new Bears regime, which puts a premium on length. Jones is an effective blitzer and has special teams experience.

Stay away: Jones did not demonstrate sharp instincts in diagnosing plays, understanding blocking schemes and reacting. He's susceptible to misdirection and isn't particularly quick in pass coverage.

rcampbell@tribune.com

Twitter @Rich_Campbell

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