The Bears’ history of standout linebackers resonated with Mason Foster during free agency.
Not only was it an alluring tradition that he wanted to join, but it’s a topic Foster can talk about in great detail and beyond the typical headliners.
Foster went to the same high school as Ron Rivera. He grew up just hours away from Lance Briggs in California. And Brian Urlacher is one of his favorite players.
“They had great players there – [Hunter] Hillenmeyer, when he was wearing No. 92,” Foster said. “I used to love watching them play because they played together. They played as one unit.
“You could see them fitting off each other and working well with each other, making plays together and getting up celebrating. They were bringing energy and passion.”
The last two seasons haven’t featured much of that. The Bears, who officially open offseason training Monday, are coming off their two worst defensive seasons ever. The struggles of their once-proud linebacker corps undoubtedly has played a role.
But Foster aspires to fix that. He’s motivated by having a one-year contract, but there’s also a sense of excitement that comes with trying to restore the Bears’ defensive tradition.
“Everybody has a fresh start – a new GM, new coaches,” Foster said. “You want to get back to the way it was — the Monsters of the Midway.
“The fans want it. The fans are going to be there to support us and they want to see the defense get back to how it should be.”
Foster’s arrival is different than when former general manager Phil Emery signed D.J. Williams and James Anderson to one-year deals in 2013. Williams and Anderson were 30 and 29, respectively, at that time.
Foster is 26. This is only his second contract after four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is not part of a plan to keep things the same, but a targeted piece in a major overhaul.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told Foster he saw him as a playmaker at inside linebacker in his 3-4 defense. Fangio worked with All-Pro inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman with the San Francisco 49ers.
“My best football is definitely ahead of me,” Foster said. “This 3-4 defense is going to give me a chance to make a lot of plays and use my skills to an advantage.”
Foster’s availability in the later stages of free agency raises doubts. But an argument can be made that his demand would have been higher had he been available a year earlier.
In 2013, Foster, a third-round pick out of Washington in 2011, totaled 92 tackles, seven pass breakups and two sacks. He also had three interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, including one for 85 yards.
Injuries derailed Foster’s 2014 season. He missed nearly seven full games because of a separated shoulder and a strained Achilles tendon.
Winning over new coach Lovie Smith required work, especially with his injury issues and his unfamiliarity with Smith’s scheme. But Tampa Bay’s points and yards allowed as a defense were considerably better when Foster played.
“I feel great,” said Foster, who handled the defensive calls. “I’m ready to go. I’m 100 percent. I can’t wait to hit somebody.”
Foster said a defensive turnaround starts with the coaches and the mentality they instill. That won’t be a problem under coach John Fox and Fangio, he said.
“Guys will run through brick walls for coaches they really love,” Foster said.
Of course, that means turning into a wall at linebacker, the Bears’ most storied position.
“I’m going to prove it,” Foster said. “I’m glad I’m in this situation. It’s what I need.”