For the Chicago Bears linebackers, 2009 was a rough campaign. In the first game of the season, Brian Urlacher went down with a season-ending wrist injury. Pisa Tinoisamoa, whom the team signed the previous offseason, injured his knee in Week 1 as well and eventually landed on injured reserve.
Hunter Hillenmeyer filled in admirably for Urlacher, finishing the year with 90 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one interception. Yet it was the play of Nick Roach on the strong side that earned a lot of attention from the Chicago faithful. Roach started 15 games, finishing with 75 tackles – fifth most on the team – as well as two sacks, three passes defended and three forced fumbles.
Tinoisamoa returned healthy in 2010, yet nagging knee injuries forced him to miss most of the second half of the season. Roach again stepped in as the SAM starter, earning 15 tackles, one pass defended and one forced fumble in just six starts.
To the casual observer, it's hard to quantify the value of a player whose job in coach Lovie Smith's defense is to be a role player. Like the nose tackle, the strong-side linebacker's job is to eat up blockers at the point of attack and filter plays toward the weak side. As such, the SAM must be able to take on lead blockers, whether they be fullbacks or linemen, and create a pile at the line of scrimmage around which the ball carrier must attempt to navigate. In this way, the middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker can then track the play laterally and make the tackle.
LB Nick Roach
M. Spencer Green/US Presswire
Another reason the strong-side linebacker can go unnoticed is his disappearance on passing downs. In a nickel defense, the SAM is replaced by the third cornerback, rendering the position useless on 2nd or 3rd and long. In reality, unless a viewer is focused in on the position, one could go an entire game without realizing the importance of the front-side linebacker. Be assured though, he is a crucial cog in Smith's Cover 2 scheme.
Yet that important piece is missing on the current Chicago roster. Both Roach and Tinoisamoa will be unrestricted free agents once the lockout ends, and no other linebackers besides Urlacher and Lance Briggs are under contract. The front office will have a difficult decision to make once football activities resume: Do they re-sign Roach, Tinoisamoa, both or neither.
The idea of letting both players walk doesn't seem very likely. In what is sure to be a truncated preseason – stripping crucial practice time away from teams – veterans familiar with the system will be in high demand. Bears brass will surely attempt to bring back at least one of their own to reduce the defense's learning curve once coaches and players begin working together. Any team trying to fit in multiple new players into a system with which they are not fully familiar will be put at an immediate disadvantage. Those teams with fewer new parts will be more likely to hit the ground running.
The Bears could attempt to re-sign both linebackers. Coaches could then fall back on the tested formula of starting Tinoisamoa and using Roach as his backup, which has produced solid results the past two seasons. Chicago's front office brought in Tinoisamoa with one-year contracts the past two seasons – for roughly $1.5 million each – so it won't hurt the organization financially give the veteran one more year in the navy and orange.
With Roach, the team needs to think long term. The former-Northwestern product went undrafted as a rookie and was cut by the San Diego Chargers in training camp. The Bears swooped in immediately, unsure though of what to expect from the 6-1, 234-pounder. He spent his rookie season on the sidelines, learning from his Pro Bowl teammates. It looks to be time well spent, as Roach has continued to improve in each of his four NFL seasons. He's produced in each opportunity he's had at extended playing time, and at 26 years old, looks to be on the cusp of his prime.
In pass coverage, Roach does a decent job of covering his short zone and is a solid tackler in open space. Against the run, he's shown a willingness to stick his nose inside and disrupt running lanes, while still being able to run down ball carriers along the sidelines. He's also very good at forcing fumbles, a premium talent in Smith's defense.
This past offseason, Tinoisamoa underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee for the third time in his career. At 30 years old, it's possible his knee won't ever allow him play at the same high level he did earlier in his career. Having lost significant time the past two seasons, there's a high risk of him going down again in 2011. If the team chooses Tinoisamoa over Roach, and the former is injured for the third straight season, that could thrust rookie J.T. Thomas into the starting role – not necessarily an ideal situation.
The most logical move is to sign Roach to a multi-year deal and let Tinoisamoa walk. The $1.5 million the team would have signed him for can be better used elsewhere, possibly on a veteran with less wear and tear. Roach could then head into training camp as the starter next to Briggs and Urlacher for the first time in his career. For a former undrafted free agent that knows what it's like to have to fight for a roster spot, this should give him the confidence to continue his quality play for years to come. At this point in his career he probably hasn't shown enough to earn a hug pay raise, so he could come relatively cheap as well.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com. To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider.