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Training Camp Battle: Jack Sanborn vs Noah Sewell

The battle for the SAM spot may not be a battle at all, unless Noah Sewell really emerges in training camp.

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

For our next training camp battle, we look at a competition that certainly may not be one at all. The battle at SAM linebacker between Jack Sanborn and Noah Sewell.

I think plenty of Bears’ fans were surprised that the Chicago Bears signed, not one, but two starting linebackers this offseason. Many fans, myself included, thought that Ryan Poles would sign a WILL linebacker and give the MIKE position to Sanborn. The Bears could invest a modicum amount at the SAM position because, as we know, nickel is the new base and the SAM is not on the field too often.

With the addition of Tremaine Edmunds and TJ Edwards at linebacker, Poles added not just a WILL but a MIKE as well, which bumps Sanborn to the SAM position and the key back-up to Edmunds and Edwards. That’s a position that Sanborn will almost certainly keep, but rookie Noah Sewell is certainly not going to go quietly.

When you assess the Bears depth chart at linebacker, you know that Edwards and Edmunds will handle all nickel duties. If one of them goes down with an injury, you’d expect that Sanborn would slide in from the SAM position and that Sewell would be elevated to SAM. But could Sewell unseat Sanborn?

Sanborn was really a rookie sensation last year. During a stretch of the season where the Bears couldn’t win a game and plenty of their key players were injured, an undrafted free agent that didn’t have the athleticism to play at the NFL level emerged from the Bears depth chart and started making tackles, well, everywhere.

Sanborn was such a success that if Poles had slated him in at MIKE, I don’t think any analyst across the country would have raised an eyebrow. He earned that spot. But bringing in two new backers certainly pushes Sanborn down to the third linebacker and the SAM spot, but SAM is what Sewell was projected to be prior to being drafted.

Sewell has excellent hand strength and does very well as shedding blockers, but he isn’t much in pass coverage. Some local football analysts have wondered if the Bears try Sewell over at edge as well, but that’s something we will have to wait and see if they do. But for now, we expect Sewell to compete at the SAM position and his strength of shedding blockers may be a critical one because the Bears defensive line is still expected to be weak and they may struggle and slowing offensive linemen reaching the second level.

Sewell is strong with decent athleticism, but he doesn’t have the instincts right now to excel at the position. Instincts is one thing Sanborn showed to have plenty of last season. Sanborn lacks in plenty of other departments, but with excellent instincts and football IQ, Sanborn makes the most out of his skills and showed them regularly on Sunday.

Ryan Poles has put together an outstanding linebacker room. Edwards and Edmunds should be one of the top duos in the league, and Sanborn and Sewell have the potential to be an outstanding support group. Even Sterling Weatherford and Dylan Cole should be solid pieces on special teams.

If Sanborn continues to look like the player he was last year, it’s hard pressed to think Sewell can supplant him as the third linebacker on the team. But Sewell already received reps with the first defensive unit during OTAs when Sanborn was out, so it looks like he’s already getting more looks on defense than either Cole or Weatherford. If Sewell flashes ability in training camp, it’s going to be tough for Matt Eberflus to just keep him on the sidelines on Sundays, even though Sanborn has already shown he can play at this level.