Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are the only two Chicago Bears linebackers currently under contract. Both are Pro Bowlers and the stalwarts of the defensive unit. Year in and year out, we all know what to expect from two of the best in the business.
Yet they can't do it all by themselves. Chicago invested a sixth-round pick in former West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas, who has the quickness and speed to play in a 4-3, Cover-2 scheme. Yet he doesn't possess the size and physicality to anchor against the run, which is expected of any strong side, or SAM, linebacker in Lovie Smith's system. At best, he'll make a good backup to Briggs on the weak side.
For the past two seasons Pisa Tinoisamoa has lined up as the SAM starter, but his time in Chicago has been marred by injuries, having only started 12 games during that period. In addition, he's currently an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
Another UFA is Nick Roach, who has performed admirably when thrust into the starting role. He's four years younger than Tinoisamoa and has much more upside. He is talented enough to be a full-time starter in the NFL. It's very likely Chicago will try hard to re-sign Roach and thus shore up its three starting linebackers. Tinoisamoa's time as a Bear may be over.
Typically, the team carries six linebackers, so even if Roach is re-signed, that still leaves two needed players at the position. Veteran free agency could be a place Chicago looks toward to fill that gap. Stewart Bradley, James Anderson and Clint Session would all make good fits.
Yet it's much more likely the Bears will look to the pool of undrafted free agents to round out its linebacking corp. The team has always placed great value in drafting and signing young linebackers, as those players have a combination of size and speed that typically makes them solid special teams contributors. In addition, a rookie will cost the team much less than an established player that may not be willing to play special teams. And with Briggs and Urlacher already on board, the position is not in need of a savior, so there's no need to overspend.
The pool of priority free agent linebackers is deep. Surely, Chicago will be inviting a handful of the following players to training camp this season.
Mark Herzlich, Boston College (6-4, 244)
After his 2008 season, Herzlich was ranked the No. 1 overall defensive prospect by ESPN. He then missed all of 2009 with a well-documented battle against bone cancer. He was no longer the same player when he finally returned last season. Yet it's obvious he still isn't fully recovered, physically, from his illness, which included seven months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation therapy. The good news is he is cancer-free now. If Herzlich can get back to where he was physically a few years ago, he could be a steal. He lacks outstanding athleticism, especially when playing in space, but he has the frame, smarts, toughness and intangibles to develop into an effective SAM linebacker, assuming he returns to 100 percent. The Bears would be wise to give him a shot at a roster spot.
LB Nick Bellore
Nick Bellore, Central Michigan (6-1, 245)
Bellore was a four-year starter for the Chippewas. He lacks ideal size, speed or strength, which is why he went undrafted. Yet he's an experienced, smart player whose a hard worker and always gives maximum effort. He'll never surpass Urlacher in the middle but he'll make a quality back up who has enough talent to be serviceable if called upon to start. At the very least, he'll be outstanding in special teams.
Scott Lutrus, Connecticut (6-2, 241)
Lutrus has the perfect skill set to play the SAM. He shows good awareness and range. He's a good tackler who packs a punch. He's very physical and not afraid to stick in his nose in at the point of attack. In pass coverage he needs a lot of work. He's smart and skilled, which could easily earn him a roster spot.
Jeff Tarpinian, Iowa (6-2, 234)
Tarpinian lacks ideal bulk but he's very fast (4.56). He's an athletic, tough player who can cover a lot of ground. He lacks experience and still needs a lot of polish but all the physical tools are there for him to make a good backup at inside linebacker. His speed will also make him very valuable in the coverage units.
Alex Wujciak, Maryland (6-2, 247)
Wujciak is an instinctive player who is always around the ball. In three seasons at Maryland, he racked up a whopping 381 tackles. He's disciplined, intelligent and plays with attitude. He lacks ideal athleticism but he demonstrates good awareness and football knowledge. A 4-3 scheme fits his skill set perfectly and he could turn into more than a backup down the line.
Mario Harvey, Marshall (5-11, 257)
Harvey is a smaller linebacker cut in the Clint-Session, Gary-Brackett mold. He has great quickness and elite speed (4.46). He also hits like a freight train. Due to his pass-rush skills, he may fit better on the outside in a 3-4 but he's a good zone defender and could excel in a 4-3 as well. He's been compared favorably to London Fletcher. His speed would make him vital in special teams.
Michael Morgan, USC (6-3, 225)
Morgan is extremely fast (4.46) but needs to add bulk. He's not strong at the point of attack, so he's better suited on the weak side. He shows good range, can make plays in space and is an effective blitzer. His lack of size caused him to go undrafted, and may never allow him to be an every down player in the NFL, but he is ideally suited for special teams play.
Adrian Moten, Maryland (6-2, 225)
Moten is another undersized, speedy linebacker (4.55) who can contribute right away on special teams. He is not great against the run, often getting swallowed up by offensive linemen, but his quickness makes him outstanding in pass coverage. He's shown good ability in both man and zone situations. If he puts on weight, he can become a solid third-down contributor.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider