NFC North Tour: Linebackers

The 53-man rosters are set for Week 1. Let's continue examining, by position, how the four NFC North teams stack up against each other heading into 2011. Next up, the linebackers.

Chicago Bears

Starters -- WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Nick Roach. Backups -- Brian Iwuh, Dom DeCicco.

Urlacher and Briggs have been voted to 13 Pro Bowls between them. Both made the Pro Bowl last season, Briggs for the sixth straight season, and Urlacher for the seventh time but the first time in four years. That ended speculation that his considerable skills had faded away after a dislocated wrist in the 2009 season opener limited him to one-half of one game. Roach started six games last season, plus 15 in 2009, and he has quietly piled up 30 career starts mostly filling in for injured starters, but now he's clearly No. 1 on the strong side. Iwuh is more of a special teams guy, but he played well in the preseason, although he's probably not what the Bears want as a starter. DeCicco is likewise a special teams player in need of development.

Detroit Lions

Starters - OLB Justin Durant, MLB Stephen Tulloch, OLB DeAndre Levy. Backups - OLB Bobby Carpenter, OLB Ashlee Palmer, MLB Isaiah Ekejiuba, OLB Doug Hogue.

This is the biggest positional upgrade on the team. By far. The signing of Tulloch, the second-leading tackler in the league last season, allowed Levy to move to the outside where he played in college and in his rookie season. Where last season the Lions started aging Julian Peterson and unpolished Zack Follett on the outside, this year they have Levy and heavy-hitting Durant. Durant is also excellent in coverage, something neither Peterson nor Follett were. Carpenter will also be in the rotation. It took him most of last season to acclimate himself with the system, but he's playing fast and loose now. He was the team's leading tackler in the preseason. It is a fast and physical group. Levy still took some reps in the middle. If Tulloch ever goes out, Levy would move back over. Palmer has worked some in the middle also, but he is primarily an outside linebacker.

Green Bay Packers

Starters -- LOLB Clay Matthews, ILB A.J. Hawk, ILB Desmond Bishop, ROLB Erik Walden. Backups -- OLB Frank Zombo, OLB Brad Jones, OLB Vic So'oto, OLB Jamari Lattimore, ILB Robert Francois, ILB D.J. Smith.

A major overhaul at the position came before the preseason when the Packers cut longtime starter and former first-round draft pick Nick Barnett as well as veteran backups Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga. That took away a lot of depth at the inside spots, where the steady Hawk and punishing Bishop are the starting tandem at the outset for the first time. Francois, a second-year player who contributed on the outside last season, and 5-11 rookie Smith, a sixth-round pick who played bigger at times than his short stature in the preseason, are the likely backups. Jackson, a practice-squad holdover, was making a late bid. Matthews is the unstoppable cornerstone on the outside and feels he will be ready to dominate again in Week 1 despite enduring more problems with his left hamstring in camp. Walden emerged as the opening-day starter on the other side because Zombo is out indefinitely, if not the entire season, with a broken shoulder blade he sustained Aug. 19, and onetime starter Jones also hurt himself in the initial three-man battle by missing time with a knee injury. Undrafted rookies So'oto and Lattimore were coming on strong late in the preseason.

Minnesota Vikings

Starters -- SLB Chad Greenway, MLB E.J. Henderson, WLB Erin Henderson. Backups -- SLB Kenny Onatolu, Xavier Adibi.

The Vikings made little attempt to retain Ben Leber, who had been their weak-side linebacker, meaning that Erin Henderson is expected to take over that role. Griffen is going to get some snaps on the weak side but it's hard to believe he could win the job at this late date. Erin's big brother, E.J. returns to the middle and Greenway will remain on the strong side. Greenway is playing this season under the one-year, $10 million plus franchise tag and is considered a vital part of this defense. Onatolu is considered an extremely important special teams player.

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