Back in mid April, Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery worked out five free agent linebackers in one week. The group of veterans each performed in front of Chicago's coaches, with Geno Hayes winning out. He was immediately signed to a one-year deal.
Hayes was brought on to provide depth at a position that was perilously thin last year. The club had two Pro Bowl linebackers but beyond the starters, the cupboard was empty.
With Brian Urlacher still recovering from a knee injury sustained in the season finale last season, Emery wanted to build some insurance in case the future Hall of Famer has any hiccups in his rehabilitation. Yet Hayes is also expected to challenge incumbent starter Nick Roach for the strong-side position.
LB Nick Roach
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
This will be one of numerous camp battles to take place once Bears training camp begins in a little over three weeks down in Bourbonnais. Let's break down the competition for the starting strong-side linebacker job.
The case for Roach
Roach is a former undrafted free agent who signed with the Bears in 2007. He started nine games in 2008, then manned the middle linebacker post for 15 starts in 2009, while Urlacher was out with a wrist injury. After six more starts in 2010, the Bears made it a priority to re-sign Roach this past offseason.
The club inked him to a two-year deal and immediately named him the starting strong-side linebacker. In 2011, he started 15 contests, yet his production was subpar. He accumulated just 38 combined tackles, with no sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles. It was a disappointing campaign that left the coaching staff unsure if Roach can be a long-term starter in Chicago.
Yet, despite the lack of big plays last year, Roach is a solid linebacker. He's been working in the Bears' system for five years. He's a smart player – as most Northwestern graduates are – with experience at all three linebacker spots.
With Urlacher being held out of practices this offseason, Roach has taken the majority of snaps at middle linebacker. During his 15 games starting at MIKE in 2009, Roach did very well, racking up 75 tackles with 2.0 sacks and three forced fumbles. If Urlacher misses time this year, Roach has the flexibility to slide inside and be productive.
With a year at the strong side under his belt, in addition his positional flexibility, Roach should prove to be a valuable member of Chicago's 2012 starting roster.
The case for Hayes
Hayes also has experience in the Tampa 2 defense, having played in a similar system for four year with the Buccaneers. He has experience on both sides, although mainly at WILL. Hayes has started 42 games in his career, picking up 257 tackles, 7.0 sacks, four interceptions and four forced fumbles.
LB Geno Hayes
During offseason activities, he was working on the strong side with the starters – with Roach in the middle – and on the weak side with the backups. He's an accomplished player that has proven to be effective in the type of zone schemes Chicago tends to run.
The biggest criticism of Hayes has been his run-stopping ability, where he tends to lack necessary aggressiveness. Yet Chicago's coaches have doubt about Roach. Hayes needs to step up and be stout at the point of attack and take advantage of Roach's poor season last year. If he shows well down in Bourbonnais, he'll force the hand of the Bears' staff.
Predicting the winner
If Urlacher misses time, Roach will slide inside and Hayes will man the SAM. Yet, assuming Urlacher is healthy, this should be a good competition between Roach and Hayes.
Hayes has every opportunity right now to swoop in and steal the position. A strong camp will land him the starting gig. Unfortunately, anything less than a spectacular preseason will likely see him in the backup role.
Roach has experience in this system and can play anywhere on the second level of the defense. He struggled last year but that was his first full season as the SAM starter. The club believes he'll make strides this year and will give him every opportunity to prove them right.
Winner: Nick Roach
Follow me on Twitter: @BearReport
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.