North breakdown: Linebackers

Our NFC North insiders go in depth to examine the linebackers of the Packers and their rivals.

Green Bay Packers

Starters: LOLB Aaron Kampman, ILB Nick Barnett, ILB A.J. Hawk, ROLB Jeremy Thompson. Backups: Clay Matthews, Brady Poppinga, Brandon Chillar, Desmond Bishop, Spencer Havner, Brad Jones, Danny Lansanah, Cyril Obiozor.

All eyes — and ears — will be on Kampman as camp gets underway. The former Pro Bowl defensive end had little to say in the offseason about being moved to linebacker in the new system, giving the impression that he wasn't in favor of it. Kampman, who will be standing up more often than not, had mixed results dropping back in coverage during the offseason workouts. At risk is his top quality of rushing the passer — he racked up 37 sacks the last three seasons. Thompson didn't bring much to the table as a rookie defensive end last season, but he is a better fit in the 3-4 with his rushing skills. Thompson worked opposite Kampman with the starting group in the offseason, but he'll need to fend off Matthews by the start of the season. Matthews, the team's second first-round pick this year, was hampered in the spring workouts by a strained hamstring. The abundance of talented outside linebackers leaves Poppinga, who is backing up Kampman, without a starting job after three years. He could be a camp casualty with a salary of $1.9 million as part of the four-year contract extension he received last year. Holdover starters Barnett and Hawk, who is moving inside, have to rise to the occasion in a scheme designed for the former first-rounders to be playmakers. Hawk took a step back last year, affected in part by chest and groin injuries. Barnett is on the comeback trail after missing the second half of the season with a torn ACL. He will be limited at the outset of camp.

Chicago Bears

Starters: WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Pisa Tinoisamoa. Backups: Jamar Williams, Nick Roach, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Marcus Freeman, Joey LaRocque.

Briggs has probably surpassed Urlacher as the Bears' best linebacker, but both are still capable of Pro Bowl seasons. The wear and tear of nine seasons seems to be taking a toll on the 31-year-old Urlacher, while Briggs, 28, is still near the top of his game. Tinoisamoa was a late pickup after he was cut by the Rams, but he is still extremely productive and makes a strong position even better. Williams, Roach and Hillenmeyer have all started in the past, Hillenmeyer for four seasons before Roach took his job last season. Williams, who seemed to be the heir apparent early in his career, slumped recently but seems to have once again won the coaching staff over with an excellent offseason. Any of the top three backups are capable starters, meaning Freeman and LaRocque may have to earn their roster spots with contributions on special teams.

Detroit Lions

Starters: WLB Ernie Sims, MLB Larry Foote, SLB Julian Peterson. Backups: DeAndre Levy, Jordon Dizon, Zack Follett, Darnell Bing, Curtis Gatewood, Spencer Cody, Spenser Smith.

The Lions made a major upgrade to this unit by adding Foote and Peterson. Foote solidifies the middle, and Peterson gives the Lions a pass-rushing presence they sorely need. The hope is that Sims will be free to make plays instead of plugging gaps now that the Tampa Two is out. Levy will start out in the middle, and Dizon, who was drafted by the previous staff to fit the middle, will move to the strong side. The coaches like his speed, even though he is undersized at 6-foot, 229 pounds. Follett, a seventh-round pick, is a classic overachiever. But he'll have to keep overachieving to make the roster.

Minnesota Vikings

Starters: SLB Chad Greenway, MLB E.J. Henderson, WLB Ben Leber. Backups: Jasper Brinkley, Heath Farwell, Robert Francois, Erin Henderson, David Herron, Kenny Onatolu.

This unit will get a big boost with the return of E.J. Henderson, who was lost in the fourth game of last season because of dislocated toes on his left foot. The Vikings ended up bringing back veteran Napoleon Harris as the starter but there was a definite drop off from the nearly Pro Bowl-type of performance that Henderson provided in 2008. Greenway and Leber have become extremely reliable on the outside. Greenway led the Vikings with 150 tackles last season and was third on the team with 5.5 sacks. Leber was fourth on the Vikings with 88 tackles and also had two interceptions. Farwell is a valuable backup who returns after missing last season because of a knee injury. Farwell's value is such that the Vikings signed him to a three-year, $7.75 million contract extension this offseason in order to retain him. A big part of that is based on the fact that Farwell is a standout on special teams and his presence was sorely missed in 2008. The Vikings selected Brinkley in the fifth round to serve as Henderson's backup and also play on special teams. Onatolu comes to the Vikings after playing for Edmonton of the CFL and will battle for a job on special teams.


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