22 Starters in 22 Days: Hunter Hillenmeyer

With two Pro Bowl linebackers on the roster, Hunter Hillenmeyer is often overlooked for being a dependable starter. Even though the Bears are looking to create competition in training camp, is anyone up to the challenge?

Hillenmeyer has become a success story in Chicago. He originally came into the league as a fifth round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers in 2003, but was cut a week into his rookie season.

The six-foot-4, 238-pounder landed in Chicago and has risen from a practice squad prospect to starting 23 games over the past two seasons. Over that span, he has 159 tackles (9 for loss), 3.5 sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble. While the numbers don't jump off the page, he comes off the field in the nickel package, which limits his snaps during a game.

Hillenmeyer will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He's a bargain for a starting linebacker, playing on a one-year deal worth $721,600.

The Vanderbilt product is known for his intelligence, but his athletic ability is underrated. Lining up next to Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs makes anybody look ordinary. Still, the talent around Hillenmeyer has helped his game progress and taken pressure off him because of the attention paid to Briggs and Urlacher.

The Bears are in the midst of trying to figure out if Briggs will be a Bear past this season. He wants a long-term extension at money near or greater than what Urlacher is making. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year and five-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker signed a nine-year, $56 million deal in 2002.

It would be wise to consider tying up Hillenmeyer, who is versatile enough to play any of the three linebacker positions. The lack of experience behind the three starters is concerning because one injury could have a ripple effect on the entire defense.

Despite having similar qualities to that of Hillenmeyer, fourth round pick Jamar Williams could be a year away from making a run at a staring job.

"We were looking for a guy that can play all three positions, and that's exactly what he can do," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said of the 6-foot, 250-pound Williams. "He's going to come in and give us, I think, some special depth in terms of having the same type of capabilities as Hunter Hillenmeyer has. Hunter can probably play all three positions for us. This young man could do the same thing. So we feel very comfortable about that."

Leon Joe has the speed Bears crave from the position, yet he's been cut twice, once by the Bears in 2004, the same year they drafted him in the fourth round. Joe Odom has eight career starts but spent most of last season on injured reserve. Brendon Ayanbadejo is primarily a special-teams player, though an excellent one.

The Bears have never been shy about trying to push Hillenmeyer. Although the four-year veteran has the inside track to retaining his starting job, several unproven players will look to challenge him in training camp. The story has been the same in years past, but he's been up to the challenge and chances are he will be again.


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