22 Starters in 22 Days: Middle LB

Leading up to training camp, JC will preview all 22 starters for the Chicago Bears on both sides of the ball – strengths, weaknesses and whatever lies in between. Today, we look at middle linebacker.

Projected starter: Brian Urlacher
Missing all but one half of football in 2009, Urlacher is rested and ready in 2010 to recapture the form that made him a six-time Pro Bowler, four times an All-Pro and the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. Now 32 and perhaps not as fast as he once was earlier in his career, Urlacher is still the most indispensible component of the Chicago defense because of his play on the field and presence in the huddle. If the Monsters of the Midway are going to be an elite defense in the NFL, which hasn't been the case since the Super Bowl campaign of 2006, then No. 54 needs to get back to patrolling the middle like he did in his prime.

Projected backup: Hunter Hillenmeyer
Previously a starter at strong-side linebacker, Hillenmeyer was forced to take on a reserve role in 2009 and accepted it like the team player he is. However, he wasn't on the sideline for long, not with both Urlacher and the new starter on the strong side, Pisa Tinoisamoa, going down due to injuries in Week 1. While it was Nick Roach initially moving into the middle because he compares more favorably to the speedy Urlacher from a physical perspective, Hillenmeyer eventually took over at the "Mike" position because he did a much better job calling the signals and getting his fellow defenders adjusted before the snap.

2009 Review
Forced to deal with back and neck problems for much of 2007-08, Urlacher was really looking forward to 2009 because he didn't have to spend months rehabbing an injury and felt much stronger going into training camp than he had the two years prior. But that all changed in the first half of the opener at Green Bay, when his wrist dislocation turned out to be incredibly severe and needed immediate season-ending surgery – the news was a shock throughout the Windy City. Credit both Roach and Hillenmeyer for playing reasonably well in Urlacher's absence, but few defenses can survive when a potential Hall of Fame enshrinee misses 15 of 16 starts without suffering a noticeable drop-off in effectiveness.

2010 Preview
Urlacher was on the field for all of minicamp and OTAs, so the wrist injury appears to be in the past and a non-issue heading into training camp. Because he was spent some time away from the game, something he says has never really happened to him going all the way back to his days at Lovington High School in New Mexico, he feels fresh and isn't dealing with the usual aches and pains normally associated with an ever-shortening NFL offseason. If free-agent signee Julius Peppers commands as much attention as he should off the edge and Tommie Harris gets back to his dominant self up front, Urlacher will be free to roam sideline to sideline and wreak havoc on a weekly basis, just like he always has.

LB Brian Urlacher
Scott Boehm/Getty

I'd much rather have ...
Ray Lewis in Baltimore. Urlacher and Lewis have been in competition with each other for the honor of being known as the best middle linebacker of this generation, and while Urlacher may have been the leader in the clubhouse at one point, Lewis has clearly emerged as the winner. Urlacher hasn't made a Pro Bowl past the age of 29, but Lewis has been selected four times since turning 31. Bears fans can only hope that, like the re-born Lewis, Urlacher learns how to still be an elite player once his elite skills begin to erode – some would say they already have.

But he's better than ...
Jonathan Vilma in New Orleans. A two-time Pro Bowler, including this past season when the Saints won their first Super Bowl in franchise history, Vilma is another in a long line of linebackers to come out of the University of Miami – see Lewis above. However, despite racking up 100-plus tackles ever year, Vilma has never been the leader of a premier defense. As a matter of fact, only once in his six-year career, as a rookie with the Jets in 2004, has Vilma been a part of a top-10 D in this league.

Confidence-o-Meter: 7.9 *
Assuming he is healthy for the entire season, Urlacher can only make the Midway Monsters better because of his ability to play the middle linebacker position. Harris may be the most important defender on the field because the three technique has the chance to destroy plays before they ever develop, but in terms of the responsibility he has defending against the run and pass, Urlacher is nothing short of irreplaceable. If he still has the speed necessary to take away the deep middle of the field in zone coverage, which is a weakness in the Cover 2 without a blazing-fast Mike, then coach Lovie Smith won't have to gamble as much in order to get the ball out of the enemy quarterback's hand.

* Much like Ron Swanson from "Parks and Recreation" came up with a scientifically perfect 10-point scale for human beauty, JC has done the same with confidence in middle linebackers. 10.0 is Dick Butkus waking up on the wrong side of the bed.

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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter 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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