Last week we worked on the defensive lines, and this week we'll turn our attention to the linebackers. With three 4-3 base looks and one 3-4 base look in Green Bay, it's not exactly a perfect comparison or slotting of the Green Bay defense, I'll admit, but for the linebackers it should be a little easier.
Follow me past the jump and let's start right in on it.
The Bears have ridden Urlacher and Briggs for eight seasons now as a pair, and have largely been filling in around them since the departure of Rosevelt Colvin and Hunter Hillenmeyer. Last year, Nick Roach filled in the 4-3 looks but was off the field just about as often, with how much time the Bears spent in their Nickel formation. DeCicco adds a special team body that can play in the middle, and Hayes adds solid competition for Roach and a backup to Briggs. Williams was claimed off waivers from the Rams last year - mix in perennial practice squad body Trahan and redshirt special JT Thomas, and we'll see what's in this unit at the back end.
Yeah, look at that list of names and tell me who sticks out. In fairness, Greenway and Henderson led the team in tackles with 88 and 78 respectively (or was that EJ Henderson who is currently a free agent). The Erin Henderson currently on roster had 44 tackles in 15 games last season. Brinkley missed all of last season (and has only recorded 25 tackles and one forced fumble in 32 NFL games). He had one less tackle than Dean did last season. Cole is a seventh-round draft pick from this year (hey, the Jerry Angelo Offensive Line Theory-- oh wait, Cole's not a starter...), McKenzie saw no time last season. Mitchell comes over from Miami where he had 15 tackles, a sack, forced fumble, and an interception. Elimimian is a CFL standout who was Hawaii's all-time leading tackler and was the CFL rookie of the year in 2010, but he's a bit undersized and will likely be a special teamer.
Tulloch, Levy and Durant aren't exactly anything new, though Tulloch may not be ready for camp. Tulloch had 92 tackles last season to lead the team and is very solid in coverage, so he's not a bad player topping the list. Levy had his best season of three last year, and Durant played well in his first year since coming over from Jacksonville. Hogue was last year's fifth round pick who hasn't seen much action, and Whitehead is a current draft pick. Palmer saw special teams time last year. Travis Lewis is the team's second linebacker selection who made it through to the seventh round, and Norris has kind of bounced around practice squads Devin Aromashodu-style.
And now for the lone 3-4 unit, and a unit that doesn't really slack. Clay Matthews is annoying as hell. There's no way around it. He didn't have that good a year last year, but improved his interceptions and pass deflections, putting the beginnings on answering the question of his coverage ability. Bishop and Hawk provide solid tackle numbers, and first round pick Nick Perry will be asked to complement Matthews' pass-rushing skills with his own. Smith chipped in an interception and some tackles while filling in three starts for Bishop. Zombo wasn't bad during the Packers' Super Bowl run, but hasn't been heard much from since - though he did pick up a sack last season. Walden had 15 starts last season but graded out as one of the worst OLBs in the league by PFF - and with the addition of Perry may lose that spot.
As far as ranking the units, I'm putting the Vikings at four. Not much in the way of returning starter material aside from Greenway and who knows what Brinkley is. At three, I'll put the Lions. Tulloch, Levy and Durant aren't a bad starting three and this speaks more to the division's depth again, but they've got three low-to-mid draft picks that haven't seen much of an NFL field (Hogue included).
At number two... I'm going to put the Packers. While they've got the names and the past production, last year wasn't good. They only picked up 29 sacks (16.5 by the linebackers), allowed the most yardage in the NFL and were third-worst in the league in net-yards-per-attempt. Particularly the lack of pass rush, the unit just didn't do its job, and Hawk's played himself into almost being traded away last season, and if Manning plays well, might he possibly take Hawk's spot next year?
The Bears then take number one, but they have their own questions of depth. Urlacher and Briggs are still performing well, but who plays the strong-side, Roach or Hayes? And which of the special-teamers can step into actual linebacking roles? How comfortable are you with Dom DeCicco getting more playing time? Do you want to see Trahan anywhere but the practice squad? And what will they do with JT Thomas and Jabara Williams?
How do you see the linebacking corps matching up?