After finally touching on the defensive side of the ball last week with the D-Line, I'll move my series back a level and spotlight the Linebackers. The Bears feel pretty comfortable with this group... as long as they are all back 100%. Losing two of your three starters in week one was a tough blow to overcome. And while the reserves filled in as well as they could, you still don't want to count on them in a starting capacity for the majority of any season.
If you're looking for a bright side to all the injuries; on the same day they placed their stand out middle linebacker on injured reserve, they signed a player that may be their special teams Ace for the next decade. As long as Jerry Angelo can resign him that is...
LINEBACKERS - Those in the "trade Lance Briggs" and "trade Brian Urlacher" camps are almost as vocal as the "trade Devin Hester" society. The Bears will never be able to trade Briggs because they'll never get what they perceive as equal value. League wide Briggs is still viewed as a system guy. I agree to a point. Playing the weak-side linebacker spot fits his strengths, but they are still his strengths. I think Briggs would be OK in any system, but having his replacement play so well on games he misses just gives "experts" more to point to.
And Urlacher is too old and expensive for anyone to want to trade for. I'm not saying he's washed up, because he's very important to what the Bears want to do and is still capable of playing at a high level. It's just that teams won't take a chance on someone who's soon to be 32 with an injury history. The Bears do have some decisions to make in their linebacking corps, but the key (as I already alluded to) is their health.
Brian Urlacher - Signed through 2012 - Or should I say Signed very very handsomely through 2012. How key is Urlacher to the Bears Tampa 2 defense? I though his replacements played as well as they could, but in nearly every game I saw a play or two that I just knew Urlacher would have made. Whether it's his coverage skills (in zone and in man), his knowledge of the defense, or his sideline to sideline speed, Brian Urlacher would have made a difference. The optimist in me is thinking the year off will do his back, neck, and legs well, but the pessimist in me is thinking he's at an age where most linebackers start to decline. Whatever he is in 2010, he'll do it as a Bear.
Lance Briggs - Signed through 2013 - Yes, Briggs is getting paid very well too. And well deserved. I'll admit I was a bit disappointed he didn't take his play to an even higher level when Urlacher was lost for the season, but he is a Pro Bowl type player after all, so how much more could he have done. I know it's the job of the MLB in the Bears system to make sure everyone is aligned properly and to make all the audibles, but Briggs should have as good a knowledge of the system as Urlacher, and him stepping up in a more vocal way is what I was looking for. Briggs will again be patrolling the weak-side next year.
Pisa Tinoisamoa - Free Agent - I think this was the Bear most fans were excited to see in 2009. His hustle and big hit potential he showed in preseason had Bears fans fired up. He tried to come back from his knee injury, but did so possibly too early, and ended the year on IR. While he is a free agent, "sources" report that he will be resigned. I'd like him back, but I'll believe it when it's a done deal.
Hunter Hillenmeyer - Signed through 2011 - I thought Hillenmeyer had a very solid season. Funny how he was on the bubble of being cut, then ends up getting so much playing time due to the injuries. I think HH has great value to the Bears. If everyone is healthy he's relegated to backup duty, but he can play all 3 LB spots, and he'll be a core special teamer. He's due $1.7 million in 2010, a lot for a backup, but he showed his worth in '09. I think he'll be back next year.
Nick Roach - Restricted Free Agent - I think Roach will be back. He filled in at middle and the strong side last year, and shouldn't be too expensive to resign. He had some positive moments last season, and the arrow is pointing up on him.
Jamar Williams - Free Agent - He's had some nice games filling in for Briggs on the weak-side. If the CBA is agreed upon (which looks less likely every passing day) Williams will have his freedom. If not he'll be a restricted free agent. I think the Bears would like to keep him around, but they may explore trading his rights.
Tim Shaw - Exclusive rights free agent - Shaw ain't goin no where. He excelled on special teams, and is a lock to return. With the way he flies around covering kicks, I can see Shaw entering that "cult-like" group of Bears favorites.
Darrell McClover - Free Agent - I think the Bears will chose not to resign McClover. He's a solid special teams option if a need arises, but I think they'll take their chances that he won't get scooped up and bring him back if an injury occurs (like they did last year).
Kevin Malast - Signed a reserve/future contract - Malast was a guy that had a solid preseason last year. He had some time on the practice squad in '09 and will be around competing in camp.
2010 LB OUTLOOK - I really don't see much change going down with this group. I doubt a free agent will be signed, other than Pisa, Roach, and/or Williams. And I don't see a need to draft a guy. Obviously if a highly rated linebacker slips to them at some point in the draft you could pull the trigger, but if someone slips I'd expect Jerry Angelo to trade down to acquire more picks (maybe even some 2011 selections). I'm sure a few undrafted free agents will be brought in for a look-see.