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NFC North Roster Comparison: Linebackers

The Bears have a tradition at linebacker, and they have a pair of impact-level players trying to live up to that tradition. How does the entire corps stack up in the division?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Chicago Bears Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago has a special relationship with linebackers. Some of the true Chicago legends played linebacker--George, Butkus, and Urlacher to name the most obvious, but the list is long. Once upon a time, off-the-ball linebackers were the heart of a defense, and they helped to define a defense in a way that currently falls to edge rushers and hybrid ‘safety-backer’ types.

The actual number of linebackers who see the field varies dramatically, regardless of whether or not the system is designated a 3-4 or a 4-3, because as I mentioned in the Interior Linemen article, the concept of a Base Defense is more or less antiquated. The true base defense in the NFL these days is a Front 6 in some combination (with five defensive backs on the field).

This distinction matters slightly less in this series, though, because the entire position group will be evaluated, not just the nominal starters.

First, though, I feel the need to give some context. For 2018, an off-the-ball linebacker led the entire league with 38 defeats. This was actually the fourth time that linebacker, Luke Kuechly, was in the top ten. Another off-the-ball linebacker came in second with 37 defeats, and that was Darius Leonard. Leonard, who was named a 1st-team All-Pro, was a rookie last year, having been drafted 36th overall. At this point, I have to point out the following gem from Bleacher Report just after the draft:

“The Indianapolis Colts’ selection of South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard with the fourth pick in the second round was one of the draft’s worst moves. They took four second-rounders, so they had plenty of room for error, but this one stands out as a head-scratcher.”

Yikes. Justis Mosqueda probably wants that call back. I can’t pretend that I had any idea exactly how good Leonard was going to be, but I did like Tremaine Edmunds, also taken in the 2018 draft. Edmunds had 23 defeats (7th for his position), which was still 4 more than any linebacker in the NFC North. In short, the truly dominant linebacker play in the league is not in the NFC North at the moment. That might change for 2019, however.

1). Minnesota

Not listed on Football Outsiders’ defeats total for 2018 is 4-time Pro Bowler Anthony Barr of Minnesota. He only played in 13 games in 2018, and despite some potential for him to move on, he is back in Minnesota. He is supported by Erik Kendricks and (occasionally) Eric Wilson. Kentrell Brothers and 5th-round draft pick Cameron Smith round out the linebackers that are probably most notable in this group, but I might be selling Ben Gedeon short.

One way or another, the Vikings basically have one excellent linebacker (Barr), one pretty good linebacker (Kendricks), and some solid depth around them. Interestingly, Pro Football Focus thinks that Barr and Kendricks are the fifth-best linebacker tandem in football. That seems generous to me, but I have to admit that I’m not willing to give PFF any money to read the rest of their list.

By most measures, the Vikings have a slightly stronger one-two punch than the Bears, but they also have just a bit more depth than Chicago. Either one would probably be enough for me to make excuses and move the Bears up to #1. Both, together, and I just have to be honest.

2). Chicago

After too long in absence, Chicago has developed a solid one-two punch with their off-the-ball linebackers, and as someone accustomed to watching Urlacher and Briggs, that just feels right. Roquan Smith held his own in the middle of the pack for linebackers with 18 defeats (the same as Green Bay’s Blake Martinez and one less than division-leading linebacker Jarrad Davis). In other words, he’s an impact player, but he’s not a star yet. Smith is likely to continue developing, and right now he is already very good, but he’s not on Barr’s level.

Nor, for that matter, is Danny Trevathan. Trevathan was a versatile chess piece for the Bears last season, and he has left his own mark on the defense. In fact, Trevathan is a good answer to Minnesota’s Kendricks. As a simple head-to-head with Kendricks, Trevathan holds his own. Over the last four years (since Kendricks came into the league), the Viking has played in 7 more games. In that time, Trevathan only trails him by 3.5 sacks and a Pick-6. He also has 7 fewer quarterback hits. He does have an extra interception, but his total passes defended is down by 1. When adjusted to a per-game basis, however, the two are functionally on the same level. Trevathan’s on-field leadership is probably enough to make up any difference, though a Minnesota fan might disagree.

Unfortunately, after their starters, Chicago’s choices thin out dramatically. Kwiatkowski is a serviceable enough rotational piece, but Joel Iyiebuniwe really only intimidates people trying to spell his name correctly. There are a number of players with little to no experience on the roster churning around behind these two, but they are more likely to make for good camp stories than to make an impact on the field.

So Chicago has two very good linebackers and very little behind them, and their best linebacker has yet to prove that he can hold his own with Minnesota’s best.

3). Detroit

Detroit’s 2017 first-round pick, Jarrad Davis, managed 19 defeats (19th for his position), which was still enough to put him in first place among linebackers in the NFC North, one ahead of Blake Martinez and Chicago’s own Roquan Smith (18 each). Davis led his defense in snaps played, as well, being on field for 98.89% of the plays. The Lions maintained a solid linebacker rotation, though, with Devon Kennard and Christian Jones on the field 88% and 65% of the time, respectively.

Kennard is probably a step above a journeyman player, having been transplanted from the Giants and recording 7 sacks in his first season for the Lions. Jones is familiar to Chicago fans as a guy who manages to play decent football most of the time, but in his first season with 16 starts, he did not exactly cause Fangio and Nagy gnash their teeth in regret for letting him go. I am sort of curious to watch the development of Jahlani Tavai. He had a late-round grade on him from most of the sources I saw that graded him at all, but the Lions took him early in the second round.

In short, the linebackers for the Lions consist of a remarkable newcomer, a pair of replacement-level contributors, and a rookie who might have been overdrafted. That’s not enough to place them in the top half of the division, unless one of their prospects really emerges soon.

4). Green Bay

Blake Martinez has outplayed his draft position, and while he has not yet earned a Pro Bowl nod, he is a really solid player. After Martinez, the Packers fall back on Reggie Gilbert and Antonio Morrison. Um...okay.

Beyond that, Green Bay invested so heavily in improving their edge rushers that they left themselves very little room to improve an already thin linebacker corps. There are some prospects who might develop (Ty Summers comes to mind), but this is a group that is going to need the improved edge rushing unit, and the secondary, to get some work done.

Given that Green Bay ran Dime or Dime+ defense over 40% of the time in 2018 (down from 42% in 2017), it’s obvious that the roster is constructed to work without depending on linebackers.

Next up is safety, where things get really interesting.

Note: All stats come from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. When possible, I used roster information directly from the teams’ own websites.