Projected starters: Lance Briggs, Pisa Tinoisamoa (?)
Coming off five straight Pro Bowl selections, which is more consecutively than the much more heralded Brian Urlacher ever got, Briggs continues to be in the prime of his career and one of the best open-field tacklers in the entire NFL. Missing just three games in seven seasons, the 6-1, 240-pounder is a lock for 100-plus tackles from his weak-side position and has now reached double digits in interceptions (10). But over on the strong side, even though Tinoisamoa won the job fair and square in training camp a year ago, he was only healthy enough to play two games and may not emerge victorious this time around.
Projected backups: Nick Roach, Tim Shaw, Brian Iwuh
Roach was listed as a reserve behind Tinoisamoa in the 2009 opener at Green Bay, but with neither Urlacher nor Tinoisamoa making it through that game, the former Northwestern Wildcat started the final 15 contests and recorded a career-best 74 tackles. One way Roach can beat out Tinoisamoa as the strong-side starter in 2010 is to make more plays in training camp, as he didn't have any INTs last year and was only credited with three passes defensed. While Shaw and Iwuh aren't expected to contribute much on D, Shaw is one of the best special teamers in the league and Iwuh was quite the coverage demon himself when he was a Jaguar.
Tinoisamoa signed with the Bears for minimal money because he was more interested in playing for a winner than cashing big checks, plus his familiarity with Lovie Smith's Cover 2 from their days together in St. Louis made Chicago a logical choice. However, he hurt his knee on the first series in Week 1 and re-injured the same knee upon his comeback in Week 6, which opened the door for Roach to get more experience and unearth some of his potential. Then there was Briggs, who is about as reliable as they get on the other side of the formation, although he is yet to prove he can elevate the play of those around him, like truly elite players are expected to do.
There are many reasons to assume Briggs will be every bit as good as he has ever been, especially if Urlacher returns to form and lines up in the middle for all 16 games. But the battle between Tinoisamoa and Roach may be the most interesting one to watch throughout training camp. Even though general manager Jerry Angelo seems to be particularly fond of Roach since he was poached for nothing off the San Diego practice squad three years ago and has turned out to be a solid player, Bears fans remember how good Tinoisamoa looked in the 2009 preseason, especially when he destroyed the 264-pound Brandon Jacobs of the Giants.
LB Pisa Tinoisamoa
I'd much rather have ...
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in Pittsburgh. Granted, the Steelers play the 3-4 and the Bears play the 4-3, so the responsibilities of the linebackers are different from one scheme to the other, but Harrison and Woodley do much more than make routine tackles. Briggs has been a terrific player for a long time, although he is totally ineffective when asked to blitz. Not only can Harrison and Woodley cover backs and tight ends when necessary, but both are good for double-digit sacks every season.
But they're better than ...
Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson in Baltimore. Again, the Ravens are a 3-4 team and the Bears are a 4-3 team, but Suggs is being paid like an elite pass rusher even though he hasn't cracked double digits in sacks since 2004 (10.5). Both Suggs and Johnson's numbers are average at best in terms of tackles made, and Briggs is better in coverage than either of them by a long shot.
Confidence-o-Meter: 8.2 *
It wasn't that long ago when Tinoisamoa was considered a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker stuck on a terrible Rams defense, and, as stated earlier, he was a better player than Roach in training camp last year and enjoyed an impressive preseason. If his knee is healthy and he regains the strength and speed he played with earlier in his career, he and Briggs could turn out to be a devastating combination flanking Urlacher. Not that Roach isn't good enough to be a starter on this team, and he may be even better down the road the more he develops, but Tinoisamoa is a better player right now and probably has more upside for this coming season.
* 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 outside linebackers. 10.0 is Lawrence Taylor on blow.
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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.