Not even assured of a spot on the final 53-man roster when he arrived for training camp, veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer put together maybe his best performance in a Bears uniform and ended the season as the starter at middle linebacker.
That last fact deserves a Vanderbilt-educated asterisk, however, as former Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher went down in Week 1 with a dislocated wrist and missed the rest of the campaign on injured reserve. Nevertheless, once youngster Nick Roach proved he wasn't up to the challenge of calling plays in the huddle or making pre-snap adjustments, Hillenmeyer moved from the strong side to the middle and held his own at a crucial position in the Cover 2. Credit Hillenmeyer for knowing he wasn't capable of playing like Urlacher and not trying to be somebody he wasn't, yet he still recorded a career-high 90 tackles.
Nevertheless, the Bears are always looking for athletic linebackers and spent their time meeting with a few of them last week during preparations for the Senior Bowl, so Hillenmeyer can't afford to get too comfortable.
Scout.com has confirmed that TCU inside linebacker Daryl Washington had an official meeting with the Bears leading up to last Saturday's game in Mobile.
In the mold of the lighter, faster 'backers that have filled out the roster throughout coach Lovie Smith's stint in the Windy City, Washington is that rangy defender known for making plays from sideline to sideline. His instincts proved to be pretty acute at the college level, and although he could afford to get a little stronger and isn't as sound of an open-field tackler as he needs to be, he takes good angles to the ball carrier and doesn't get caught out of position very often. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub will dig the fact that Washington blocked four punts in a Horned Frogs uniform, so he can most likely contribute on the coverage units right away.
The 6-2, 226-pound Washington is rated Scout.com's No. 3 prospect at inside linebacker for the 2010 NFL Draft.
JC's Take: Hillenmeyer is scheduled to earn $1.7 million in 2010, so if Urlacher is going to make a complete recovery and be back in the lineup Week 1, that's a fairly expensive player to have on the bench.
Not that Hillenmeyer doesn't have value, as he showed last season how important it is to have an experienced former starter ready to go if his number is called in an injury situation, but he isn't needed very much on game day if he's not at least a two-down linebacker. His special-teams ability is limited because he isn't fast, unlike coverage demons Tim Shaw and Darrell McClover. Plus, reports suggest Pisa Tinoisamoa is going to be re-signed, making it less likely Hillenmeyer gets his old job back on the strong side.
A lot of Bears fans would hate to see a class act like Hillenmeyer get released, but to make room for a younger talent with upside that can do more on special teams, like Washington, it's a justifiable move.
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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