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Linebacker will be the Bears' most improved position group on defense

Our resident scout, Greg Gabriel, goes over the Bears’ linebacker group.

Chicago Bears Offseason Workout Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In 2022, the Chicago Bears linebacker group was never exactly what Chicago Bears Head Coach Matt Eberflus wanted. In order for the defense to perform as expected, that group not only has to play the run well but also has to be very good in coverage.

When the Bears played Lovie Smith’s version of the Tampa-2 scheme, they more often than not played with three linebackers on the field. In today’s game with five defensive backs basically being the base defense, most clubs play most downs with two linebackers.

Last year before he was traded, Roquan Smith was the lead linebacker and played the all-important Will linebacker position. While Roquan was excellent vs the run and was good in coverage, the reality is that the Bears wanted better.

The team could very well have “lived” with Smith’s play had they been able to get together on a contract, but that wasn’t to be. The Bears were not about to pay a linebacker $20+ Million per year, and he not be the perfect fit in the scheme.

In the first few hours of free agency last March, the Bears upgraded the linebacker position drastically with two signings. Former Bills Mike linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and former Eagle T.J. Edwards were brought in. Both played close to a Pro Bowl level last year and will give the Bears the best Will/Mike duo since Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. In fact, when we look at the physical traits of Edmunds and Edwards, they are very similar to Urlacher and Briggs.

Brain Urlacher was 6040 – 258 and ran a 4.61 when he entered the League. Briggs was 6010 – 242 and ran a 4.75. Briggs did not time as fast as Lovie Smith would have preferred at the Will, but he was so instinctive that he played much faster than he timed.

Edmunds came into the League at 6045 – 253 and ran a 4.54, very similar to Urlacher. Edwards was 6003 – 230 and ran 4.77. Again, not quite as fast as we’d like, but he also has superb instincts that allows him to play much faster.

Both Urlacher and Briggs were excellent versus both the run and the pass, as are Edmunds and Edwards. What Urlacher could do is take away the middle of the field in zone coverage because of his size, speed, length and awareness. Edmunds is very similar in zone and perhaps better in man coverage than Urlacher was. Edwards is one of the better pass coverage linebackers in the League.

The Bears hope to play in their sub-package 75-80% of the time. When they do have to use three linebackers, the Sam will be the winner of the competition between Jack Sanborn, rookie draft choice Noah Sewell, and veteran free agent signee Dylan Cole.

Going into camp last year, Sanborn was a long shot to make the 53-man roster. Not only did he make it, but by mid-season he was the best linebacker the Bears had. Sanborn has the one important trait that all linebackers need to play well: excellent instincts. His ability to anticipate is like a five-year vet. Add to that the fact that he is extremely tough, and we have a very good Sam prospect.

Dylan Cole doesn’t have a big name, but he has been very productive as a backup and special teams player during his six-year career. He has only nine starts to his name, but last year played 43% of the defensive snaps for Tennessee. He is a very unheralded signing for the Bears.

Sewell played both Will and Mike at Oregon. Like Sanborn, he has great instincts, is very physical and plays well versus both the run and pass. Some fans think that he projects as an edge, but that is not the case. At 6015-246 and with only 31 5/8” arms, he doesn’t have the height and length that ‘Flus would prefer at the Edge position, plus he’s never played as an edge.

What Sanborn, Sewell and Cole need to do is not only be able to play Sam but also play at Will or Mike. For much of last year, the Bears carried only five linebackers on the 53-man roster, so the backups have to be able to play all three positions. We know Sanborn can, as he played Will and Mike as a rookie. Playing at Sam won’t be much different. Cole has experience backing up at all three positions, and since Sewell played Mike and Will in college, he just needs to learn the Sam.

What the Bears have is not only a very good linebacker group but also a very deep one. There is enough talent on the roster to survive an injury to Edmunds or Edmunds for a few games. This will be an exciting group to watch in camp and pre-season.