Last season, the Chicago Bears sent two linebackers to the Pro Bowl. Brian Urlacher made his eighth trip to Hawaii, while Lance Briggs made his seventh. Despite being on the wrong side of 30 – Urlacher is 34 and Briggs is 31 – both are still playing at a very high level.
Yet beyond those two, and starter Nick Roach, the cupboard was bare. No backup linebacker on the roster had any significant experience, which would have put the defense in a serious bind had one of the starters gone down with an injury.
GM Phil Emery did some work this offseason to add depth, although it's unclear at this point who can be counted on if a starter falls. Let's break down the team's linebackers to see if Chicago is in better shape than they were a year ago.
LB Brian Urlacher
David Banks/US Presswire
Starters: Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Nick Roach
We all know what the Bears have in Urlacher and Briggs. They are two of the best linebackers in the league and, together, make arguably the best duo in the NFL. There are no concerns with a healthy Briggs, who had his contract reworked this offseason. He's happy and healthy, and should again produce another All Pro season.
The same can't necessarily be said about Urlacher, who suffered a severely sprained knee in last year's season finale. The injury did not require surgery but it did force him to miss all of the club's offseason activities. He said today the knee is 100 percent and he'll be ready to go for the start of training camp tomorrow. Still, we'll have to wait and see how a severe leg injury will affect a player in his mid-30s who relies on speed to make plays.
Urlacher is in a contract season, yet the Bears are going to make him play out the season before offering him a new deal. It's a smart move, as we still don't know how healthy the knee actually is. Players talk a big game but the proof is in the pudding.
On the strong side, Nick Roach had a decent season in 2011, although it was far from spectacular. He finished the campaign with 31 total tackles, ninth best on the team. Roach does leave the field on passing downs but even so, 31 tackles is an unimpressive total.
For that reason, the front office signed Geno Hayes this offseason to compete with Roach for the SAM job. Hayes is a four-year veteran with 42 starts under his belt, all with the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay runs a defense similar to Chicago's, easing Hayes' transition to his new team. Yet, like Roach, Hayes has never stood out on the field. In fact, he was benched for three games last year due to poor play, including a dreadful showing against the Bears in London. The Bucs, who also lack depth at linebacker, chose to allow Hayes to hit free agency rather than re-sign him, which says a lot.
The winner of this battle won't be on the field for passing downs, so his impact will be limited. That said, it would help the team if the eventual starter can make big plays at crucial moments.
Chicago signed Blake Costanzo this offseason, although his contributions will come mainly on special teams. In his six-year career, he has never started a game at linebacker. As such, he'll be counted on to replace Corey Graham, last year's leading special teams tackler who bolted for Baltimore in free agency.
LB Dom DeCicco
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
Patrick Trahan was called into duty last year after Urlacher's injury and has a shot to be a primary backup this year. The same goes for Dom DeCicco, a collegiate strong safety at Pitt who is still learning the linebacker position. DeCicco has made huge strides since making the team as a UDFA last year and has the athleticism to be a starter down the line. He finished second on the team last year in special teams tackles and will again fill that role this season.
Jabara Williams is a second-year player who will need to be solid on special teams to earn a roster spot. The same goes for undrafted free agents Ronnie Thornton and Adrien Cole.
The wildcard here is J.T. Thomas, Chicago' forgotten linebacker. Last year's sixth round pick, Thomas was placed on injured reserve before the start of the campaign. Yet the IR designation was just a way for the Bears to keep Thomas with the team, in the hopes he can improve this year. Because during last year's training camp, Thomas was awful. He appeared severely hindered by the lockout. Yet he's a talented player that can be a contributor going forward, if only on special teams for now.
On film, I've seen nothing all that impressive from Hayes. He lacks aggressiveness against the run and cannot separate from blockers. As such, Roach will remain the starter.
DeCicco and Costanzo have great value on special teams. They will serve as the primary backups, along with Hayes. If Thornton and Cole can impress the coaches in Bourbonnais, they'll make great additions to the practice squad. And unless Thomas has turned a corner, he'll likely be out of a job.
Starters: Urlacher, Briggs, Roach
Backups: Hayes, DeCicco, Costanzo
(If the Bears keep seven, Trahan is next in line.)
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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.