Comparing the North: Linebackers

The Bears are getting two key linebackers back and hoping to return to glory, but the top three teams in the NFC North all have solid linebacker corps. We look at the starting rotation and depth for each of the division's teams.


Starters - WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Nick Roach. Backups - SLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, MLB/SLB Hunter Hillenmeyer, MLB Tim Shaw, Kevin Malast, Brian Iwuh.

This was the deepest position on the club last season, and that depth was put to the test when opening-day starters Urlacher (dislocated wrist) and Tinoisamoa (knee) combined to play approximately one game all season between. Roach, on the strong side in place of Tinoisamoa, and Hillenmeyer, in the middle for Urlacher, stepped in and performed well. But the Bears still missed Urlacher's leadership and big-play ability, and they're counting on a return to form from the six-time Pro Bowler. Tinoisamoa re-signed as an unrestricted free agent, but he'll have to win the job back from Roach, who tied for the team lead with 10 tackles for loss. Briggs, who was voted to his fourth straight Pro Bowl, doesn't appear to have slowed down at all, and Urlacher's return should make him an even better player.


Starters - WLB Zack Follett, MLB DeAndre Levy, SLB Julian Peterson. Backups - Jordon Dizon, Ashlee Palmer, Landon Johnson, Vinny Ciurciu, Caleb Campbell, Lee Campbell.

Levy was a rookie surprise in 2009, starting 10 games, mostly on the weakside. But now he's the man in the middle, and it'll be up to Levy — one of coordinator Gunther Cunningham's pet projects — to show he's ready to make the calls for the defense. Likewise, Follett — another second-year player — can stake claim to the weakside job vacated by the trade of Ernie Sims. Special-teams ability earned him a roster spot last fall, but he impressed coaches playing a bit role late in the season. The changes up front should help Julian Peterson make more plays on the strong side, but he was inconsistent last season after coming over in a trade from Seattle. Dizon actually has the most tenure in Detroit, but like the others — Ciurciu, Palmer, Johnson — he'll need to excel on special teams to lock down a roster spot. One to watch: Caleb Campbell, the Army lieutenant who is returning to football — and making the switch from safety to linebacker — after serving two years of active duty.


Starters — LOLB Brad Jones, ILB Nick Barnett, ILB A.J. Hawk, ROLB Clay Matthews. Backups — ILB Brandon Chillar, OLB Brady Poppinga, ILB Desmond Bishop, Cyril Obiozor, Robert Francois, Frank Zombo, Alex Joseph, John Russell.

The Packers figure to open the season with the same starting four with whom they ended last season. The question mark is on the left side. Then-rookie Jones took over down the stretch for an injured Aaron Kampman, who since signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency, and did some good things with four sacks and capable coverage skills. Still, the Packers are in need of more consistent pass rush from the position, which could make Poppinga a viable option after he lost the starting job on the other side to the highly productive Matthews (team-high 10 sacks as a rookie) early last season. Barnett and Hawk were 1-2 on the defense in tackles last season with 122 and 87, respectively, but the impactful plays from the former first-round draft picks were few and far between. Barnett should be ready for the start of camp after having arthroscopic knee surgery early in the offseason. Chillar and Bishop are nice situational players, and Obiozor has a chance to stick after being promoted from the practice squad as an undrafted rookie late last season.


Starters — WLB Ben Leber, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups — Jasper Brinkley, Heath Farwell, Erin Henderson, J Leman, Kenny Onatolu, Nate Triplett.

Greenway and Leber have turned into extremely reliable linebackers and both will be looking to make a big impression this season as they head into the final season of their contracts. It's looking like E.J. Henderson be ready to go for training camp after suffering a fractured femur in December, but Brinkley could be the man in the middle until Henderson proves he is 100 percent. Brinkley is a very good run stopper and loves to hit but his ability in pass coverage left something to be desired last season. A fifth-round pick out of South Carolina in 2009, Brinkley came off the field in passing situations, but teams still went at him through the air on base downs. Look for Greenway and Leber to remain the linebackers in the nickel package until Henderson re-establishes himself. Greenway missed the minicamp for unknown reasons and Erin Henderson, E.J.'s brother, got the snaps with the first team on the strong side. Erin Henderson appears to have made real strides entering his third season and could be put in a top backup role. Farwell and Onatolu are special-teams standouts and the Vikings are hoping Triplett also can battle for a spot on special teams. Triplett, a fifth-round pick in April, likely will land on the practice squad.

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