The Chicago Bears were precariously thin at linebacker last year and would have been in dire straits had any of the starters been injured. To address this need, the club brought in five veteran linebackers in mid-April for tryouts.
Of the five, Geno Hayes won out and was signed to a one-year deal the following day.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Hayes in the sixth round of the 2008 draft and named him the starter two years later. He was the full-time starter the past three years, although he was briefly demoted last season. After his rookie contract expired this offseason, the Bucs made no effort to re-sign him.
Hayes has started 42 games at outside linebacker in his four years in the NFL. He is expected to challenge incumbent strong-side starter Nick Roach, who was good but not great last season. Yet Hayes said, despite the competition, Roach has been nothing but helpful.
"Nick has been nothing but supportive," Hayes said after OTA practice yesterday. "He understands this is a competition sport. Guys come in every day, day in and day out. Since I've been here he's been nothing but great. Helping me out, learn what I've got to learn, telling me the ins and outs of how to work out here, how to play, how to practice."
LB Geno Hayes
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Tampa Bay runs a Cover 2 defense that similar to Chicago's, although Hayes said the differences between the two systems are night and day.
"I started off my rookie year playing some of the same things [that Chicago runs]. That was more of the original system. Then we kind of switched over to a whole different kind of hybrid down in Tampa under coach [Raheem] Morris."
In a Bears uniform, Hayes is re-learning that which he was taught his rookie season.
"For the most part, I know plenty of the stuff. Pretty much like a refresher course from what I came in learning my first year. Mostly what it is really is getting the terminology down, understanding how they want to play, how they want to practice, the tempo out here in practice and pretty much understanding how they play around here to be a Chicago Bear."
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, still recovering from a sprained knee suffered in the season finale last year, has not yet practiced during OTAs. This has moved Roach inside. Hayes has been filling in at SAM with the starters, while also learning the weak side (WILL) with the backups.
"So far I've been playing the WILL. I've been practicing at SAM. Just mixing it up a little bit and learning both positions. I don't want to say I have the WILL all the way down but I have a good gist of what I need to do and know what I go to do. So now I'm on the other side learning the SAM as well."
In Tampa, Hayes was criticized for a lack of toughness, a label he'll need to shed if he's going to beat out Roach and play linebacker in Chicago. He said linebackers coach Bob Babich has been exceptional in helping him become a more well-rounded player.
"He's great. He's something I've been missing for the most part of my career, is a coach that actually coaches on the finer details of actually knowing how to play a system, play the game and be a better athlete. So far he's trying to make sure that every little ounce of me is going to come out and make me one of the best players out here on the team."
For now, he's learning both OLB positions and will likely be the primary backup on both edges, assuming he doesn't outplay Roach in training camp. His ability to grasp both outside spots will be key in whether or not the team chooses to re-sign him this upcoming offseason.
Hayes comes into a very good situation with the Bears. The team has two aging starters and lacks adequate depth. On top of that, the club also isn't completely sold on Roach. For those three reasons, Hayes has a great opportunity to establish himself in Chicago as a long-term option.
It will be up to him this season to prove he's worth the investment.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.