Starters — WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Hunter Hillenmeyer. Backups — Jamar Williams, Rod Wilson, Nick Roach, Michael Okwo.
Briggs has made the past three Pro Bowls and got a six-year, $36 million deal to stay. He's still in his prime and is almost three years younger than Urlacher, who disrupted the offseason with his efforts to re-do a contract that had four years remaining. He hasn't yet gotten the extension he wants, but Urlacher remains the leader of the defense and is still an impact player, even though he missed the Pro Bowl last year for just the second time in eight seasons. The unheralded Hillenmeyer gets overlooked, but he is assignment sound and a major contributor in the base defense. Williams is the best and most versatile of a young group of backups, and he may be the only one with starting potential. Wilson and Roach are undersized but both can run and have played well on special teams. Okwo got hurt too early last season as a rookie to prove much.
Starters — WLB Ernie Sims, MLB Paris Lenon, SLB Alex Lewis. Backups — Jordon Dizon, Buster Davis, Gilbert Gardner, Alfred Fincher, Caleb Campbell, Anthony Cannon, Tyrone Pruitt.
Sims is set on the weak side. The other two spots are up for grabs. The Lions would like Dizon to develop quickly as a rookie, allowing veteran Lenon to move to the strong side. Davis is an intriguing prospect, a third-round pick last year who was quickly cut by Arizona. Gardner and Fincher provide some veteran depth. Campbell will be a national story because he played at Army and remains on active duty while he tries to make the team.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Starters — WLB A.J. Hawk, MLB Nick Barnett, SLB Brandon Chillar. Backups — Brady Poppinga, Tracy White, Desmond Bishop, Abdul Hodge, Spencer Havner, Danny Lansanah, Marcus Riley.
The other must-watch camp battle will be at strong-side ‘backer. Poppinga hasn't lost his grip on the starting job after two years, but the two-year, $5.4 million contract Chillar netted as Green Bay's lone free-agent signee of note favors him to come out ahead for the start of the season. The two combatants split the reps in the offseason. Pass coverage, or lack thereof, has been Poppinga's downfall, and it's a vital area in which Chillar excels. If the Packers can solidify that spot, they'll have one of the more dynamic linebacker corps in the league. Hawk is on the cusp of having a breakout season after two solid but not spectacular seasons as the team's 2006 first-round pick. Barnett has established himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber player in the middle, though he hasn't been voted into the all-star game. White was re-signed for his immense value on special teams. Hodge, a tenacious young player stuck behind Barnett, is fully recovered from knee injuries that kept him out all last year.
Starters — WLB Chad Greenway, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Ben Leber. Backups — Rufus Alexander, Vinny Ciurciu, Heath Farwell, Erin Henderson, David Herron, J. Leman, Derrick Pope.
E.J. Henderson made a smooth transition back to the middle last season after having spent two seasons playing the weak side. Henderson, who replaced Napoleon Harris after Harris signed with the Chiefs, led the Vikings with 155 tackles and also had 4.5 sacks, 14 tackles-for-loss and 19 quarterback hurries. Greenway slid into Henderson's former spot and made steady improvement after sitting out his rookie season because of a knee injury. Leber is a steady presence on the strong side — he tied for the team lead with five sacks — and barring injury the Vikings should be set at linebacker. That means the backup spots will go to the players who can contribute the most on special teams. Farwell has been a standout in this area and Ciurciu was signed as a free agent in 2007 because of his abilities to play on every special-teams unit. Pope was added this offseason to replace Dontarrious Thomas, who departed to sign with the 49ers. Pope also embraces the role of contributing on special teams. Alexander missed his rookie season because of a knee injury, but the sixth-round pick from 2007 should get a shot to make the roster. Erin Henderson, E.J.'s younger brother, was expected to be taken in last April's draft but ended up signing as a free agent with the Vikings.
Comparing the North: Linebackers
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