Assessing the North: Linebackers
Starters – WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Nick Roach. Backups – Patrick Trahan, MLB Dom DeCicco.
Briggs made his seventh straight Pro Bowl, and Urlacher made it for the eighth time. Obviously, neither player has exhibited much of a drop-off, even at the ages of 33 and 31, respectively. Briggs led the Bears with 140 tackles, followed by Urlacher's 125. Urlacher also had three interceptions and recovered two fumbles, while Briggs forced two fumbles and tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss, one more than Urlacher. Roach has quietly been a starter for the better part of four years, and he started 15 games for the second time in three years.
There really is no depth behind the starters, and it's probably time to start developing the eventual successors for Urlacher and Briggs, who can't go on forever.
Starters – OLB Justin Durant, MLB Stephen Tulloch, OLB DeAndre Levy. Backups – OLBs Bobby Carpenter, Doug Hogue, MLB Ashlee Palmer. Injured reserve – Isaiah Ekejiuba.
This unit was much improved over last year, especially because of Tulloch (team-high 111 tackles) and Durant (68). Those two added a speed and tenacity that was missing the last couple of years. But there are still some concerns. For one, Tulloch is unrestricted. He was signed to a one-year deal last year. All indications are he wants to be back in Detroit, but with Cliff Avril's and possibly Calvin Johnson's deals to work out, you never know if his price can be met.
If Tulloch did leave, Levy would move back to the middle. Levy seemed somewhat miscast as an outside linebacker. He was good in the run game for the most part (107 tackles) but he was suspect in coverage. He seems better suited to defend in shorter spaces.
The Lions will be looking to upgrade at outside linebacker. Carpenter, unrestricted, isn't expected back and Hogue is still a year or two away from being able to contribute on defense. Palmer, a key special-teams player and a heavy hitter, could be in the mix at either inside or outside linebacker next season.
Green Bay Packers
Starters - LOLB Clay Matthews, MLB Desmond Bishop, MLB A.J. Hawk, ROLB Erik Walden. Backups - OLB Brad Jones, OLB Frank Zombo, MLB D.J. Smith, MLB Robert Francois, OLB Vic So'oto, OLB Jamari Lattimore.
Green Bay's pass-rush deficiencies (a grand total of 30 sacks in 17 games, including the playoffs) fell greatly on not having a capable starter opposite Matthews. Walden held the role for all but the final two games of the season and came up with just three sacks – none after Nov. 20. That allowed opponents to liberally double-team Matthews, who had a solid season in being selected to the Pro Bowl for the third time in as many seasons but saw his sacks total dip from 10 and 13½ his first two years to a team-leading six this season. Zombo, who emerged as a starter as an undrafted rookie in 2010, played only six games because of a variety of injuries. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers turned to onetime starter Jones in the playoffs, but it was too little, too late. So'oto, who made the team as an undrafted rookie with a stellar preseason, never kept the momentum going in the regular season after suffering a back injury days before the season opener. The inside tandem of Bishop (team-high 142 tackles, five sacks) and Hawk (104 tackles) succumbed to calf injuries in the Thanksgiving game at Detroit, which allowed the young duo of rookie Smith and Francois to do some good things for a few games.
Starters – WLB Erin Henderson, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups – WLB Kenny Onatolu, MLB Xavier Adibi, SLB Larry Dean.
The Henderson brothers are unrestricted free agents. The team is expected to pursue a deal with the younger Erin, but let long-time starter E.J. leave because he'll be 32 next season. Greenway, the team's leading tackler the past four seasons, made very few splash plays this season. He is athletic and fast enough to be given a role that's more conducive to making big plays. That will be a priority for the defensive coaches as they try to bounce back from a disastrous season.
Adibi played in only four games, mostly as a special teamer. Onatolu and Dean, a rookie from Division II Valdosta State, are only special teamers. The Vikings could be looking at overhauling this position with two new starters and possibly a new backup to replace Onatolu. They already started the process in the coaching ranks, moving former defensive coordinator Fred Pagac to linebackers coach with Mike Singletary still assisting.
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