Breaking Down the Bears: Linebackers

The Bears have two Pro Bowl quality players at linebacker in Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. However, the strong-side spot remains open for debate.

Starters -- SLB Hunter Hillenmeyer, MLB Brian Urlacher, WLB Lance Briggs. Backups -- Joe Odom, Marcus Reese.

When he was healthy, Urlacher played extremely well and seemed to get his knack for the big play back with five sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles in just nine games. The Bears are a different team with him in the lineup, especially against the run, where he possesses sideline-to-sideline range because of his tremendous speed. The team was winless without him in seven games and had a 5-4 mark with him on the field. That fact alone should take him off the most overrated list, but making the defense among the elite in the game would also quiet the critics. Urlacher will head into next season with the goal of becoming Defensive Player of the Year.

Briggs was practically Urlacher's equal when it came to making tackles, but the second-year standout didn't make as many big plays. He returned his only interception for a touchdown, but on more than one occasion dropped picks that could have produced points. He became the first Bear other than Urlacher to lead the team in tackles and the duo seem to feed off one another in that competition. Briggs was a first Pro Bowl alternate in his first year on the weak-side and with a few more big plays could make a trip to Hawaii.

Hillenmeyer played better than expected filling in for Urlacher and earned a starting spot on the strong side, until he had to move back to the middle when Urlacher got hurt again. The Bears are still looking for an upgrade in their third linebacker, but Hillenmeyer would remain as a valuable and versatile backup.

Odom and Reese have the speed to play in the defense but probably only as backups. During their starts neither made an impression and at times looked overmatched.

The strong-side linebacker is the weakest point on a defense that will return all 11 starters and top backups. The team can live with Hillenmeyer as the starter, but don't be surprised to see GM Jerry Angelo spend a draft pick in an attempt to find the third member of the linebacker trio. Angelo has been hit or miss with linebackers during his tenure with the Bears. He took Briggs in the third round of the '03 draft, but Leon Joe, a fourth rounder last April, didn't even make the 53-man roster.

The Bears are unlikely to spend money in the free agent to upgrade any position on defense because there are so many holes to fill on the other side of the ball.

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