NFC North Tour: LB Breakdown

In the seventh part of our NFC North personnel previews, we examine the division's linebackers. As usual, we lead off in Green Bay, which has some dynamic playmakers — highlighted by Clay Matthews — but precious little depth.

Green Bay Packers

Starters — LOLB Clay Matthews, ILB A.J. Hawk, ILB Desmond Bishop, ROLB Erik Walden. Backups — OLB Frank Zombo, OLB Brad Jones, OLB Vic So'oto, OLB Jamari Lattimore, ILB Robert Francois, ILB D.J. Smith.

A major overhaul at the position came before the preseason when the Packers cut longtime starter and former first-round draft pick Nick Barnett as well as veteran backups Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga. That took away a lot of depth at the inside spots, where the steady Hawk and punishing Bishop are the starting tandem at the outset for the first time. Francois, a second-year player who contributed on the outside last season, and 5-11 rookie Smith, a sixth-round pick who played bigger at times than his short stature in the preseason, are the backups. Matthews is the unstoppable cornerstone on the outside. He enters the regular season healthier than he was in his first two seasons, when he was dogged by hamstring issues. Walden emerged as the opening-day starter on the other side because Zombo is out indefinitely with a broken shoulder blade he sustained Aug. 19, and onetime starter Jones also hurt himself in the initial three-man battle by missing time with a knee injury. Undrafted rookies So'oto and Lattimore were coming on strong late in the preseason.

Chicago Bears

Starters — WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Nick Roach. Backups — Brian Iwuh, Dom DeCicco.

Urlacher and Briggs have been voted to 13 Pro Bowls between them. Both made the Pro Bowl last season, Briggs for the sixth straight season, and Urlacher for the seventh time but the first time in four years. That ended speculation that his considerable skills had faded away after a dislocated wrist in the 2009 season opener limited him to one-half of one game. Urlacher kicked off the 2011 season by being named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Roach started six games last season, plus 15 in 2009, and he has quietly piled up 30 career starts mostly filling in for injured starters, but now he's clearly No. 1 on the strong side. He's removed in nickel situations. Iwuh is more of a special teams guy, but he played well in the preseason, although he's probably not what the Bears want as a starter. DeCicco is likewise a special teams player in need of development.

Detroit Lions

Starters — OLB Justin Durant, MLB Stephen Tulloch, OLB DeAndre Levy. Backups — OLB Bobby Carpenter, OLB Ashlee Palmer, MLB Isaiah Ekejiuba, OLB Doug Hogue.

This is the biggest positional upgrade on the team. By far. The signing of Tulloch, the second-leading tackler in the league last season, allowed Levy to move to the outside, where he played at Wisconsin and in his rookie season. Where last season the Lions started aging Julian Peterson and unpolished Zack Follett on the outside, this year they have Levy and heavy-hitting Durant. Durant is better in coverage than Peterson and Follett were but he's still removed in nickel situations. Tulloch had a sack against Tampa Bay. Carpenter also will be in the rotation. It took him most of last season to acclimate himself with the system, but he's playing fast and loose now. He was the team's leading tackler in the preseason. It is a fast and physical group. Levy still took some reps in the middle. If Tulloch ever goes out, Levy would move back over. Palmer has worked some in the middle also, but he is primarily an outside linebacker. Hogue, a rookie, will play mostly on special teams.

Minnesota Vikings

Starters — SLB Chad Greenway, MLB E.J. Henderson, WLB Erin Henderson. Backups — SLB Kenny Onatolu, Xavier Adibi.

The Vikings made little attempt to retain Ben Leber, who had been their weak-side linebacker, meaning that Erin Henderson took over that role. Henderson, who had a sack against San Diego, is removed in nickel situations. Erin's big brother, E.J. returns to the middle and Greenway will remain on the strong side. Greenway is playing this season under the one-year, $10 million plus franchise tag and is considered a vital part of this defense. He had a career-high 144 tackles last season and has aeraged 116 tackles over his four seasons as the starter. He gave up two touchdown catches against San Diego. Griffen is going to get some snaps on the weak side but failed to beat out Erin Henderson. Onatolu is considered an extremely important special teams player.


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