Chicago Sun-Times

16 days to Camp: Briggs, Urlacher constants for Bears at linebacker

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We turn to the linebackers as we get back to our position-by-position previews and breakdowns.

Projected starters: MLB Brian Urlacher, 6-4, 258, 10th season, New Mexico; WLB Lance Briggs, 6-1, 242, 7th season, Arizona; SLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, 6-1, 230, 7th season, Hawaii.

Others

Marcus Freeman, 6-1, 239, Rookie, Ohio State
Hunter Hillenmeyer, 6-4, 238, 7th season, Vanderbilt
Joey LaRocque, 6-2, 228, 2nd season, Oregon State
Kevin Malast, 6-2, 233, Rookie, Rutgers
Mike Rivera, 6-2, 245, Rookie, Kansas
Nick Roach, 6-1, 234, 3rd season, Northwestern
Jamar Williams, 6-0, 237, 4th season, Arizona State

Projected depth chart

MLB: Urlacher, Hillenmeyer
WLB: Briggs, Williams, Freeman
SLB: Tinoisamoa, Roach

2009 salary cap numbers

Lance Briggs $6,766,666
Marcus Freeman $355,425
Hunter Hillenmeyer $1,550,000
Joey LaRocque $390,200
Kevin Malast $311,666
Mike Rivera $311,666
Nick Roach $465,200
Pisa Tinoisamoa $1,501,560
Brian Urlacher $10,185,511
Jamar Williams $643,950

Number of linebackers on the roster at the start of the 2008 season: 6

Projected number of linebackers on 2009 roster at start of the season: 6 or 7

The skinny: The Bears went into the 2008 season able to trumpet the fact that their starting linebacking corps was entering its fifth consecutive year in tact. Not many teams can talk about having that kind of stability in the middle of their defense, and the Bears can't anymore. Hillenmeyer was replaced by Roach on the strong side during the middle of last season and while nothing has been awarded at this point, all signs point to the newcomer Tinoisamoa winning that job in training camp. That puts Roach out of a starting position and perhaps in line for a major role on special teams, and Hillenmeyer in a spot where he'll have to fight and claw to make the roster. But the strong-side backer has always been the sidekick for the Bears. The strong-side linebacker was on the field 63 percent of the time for the Bears last season (down from 69.2 percent in 2007). The stars are at the other spots where Briggs was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive year. In franchise history only Mike Singletary (10), Dick Butkus (8) and Bill George (8) have been chosen to more consecutive all-star games from the position. Briggs led the defense in tackles for the second time in his career and had a personal best three interceptions. He plays with great range and is a big reason why the Bears ranked third in the league in pass defense vs. tight ends according to Football Outsiders.

Urlacher played through neck and back injuries last season and wasn't the sideline-to-sideline playmaker he has been in the past. His wear and tear, no doubt, played into it, and it was probably a factor of how he was used. The Bears had success with the "mug look" they debuted in their season-opening upset victory at Indianapolis and they didn't get away from it until after opponents had caught on. It called for Urlacher and Briggs to crowd the line of scrimmage and often left them backpedaling when the ball was snapped, a movement that puts cornerbacks in the best position to make plays but not always linebackers. Urlacher had double-digit tackles in only three games down from eight in 2007, 10 in 2006, 12 in 2005, six in his injury-plagued 2004 ... you get the picture. Better play on the line, of course, would make Urlacher more efficient. The good news is that going into his 10th season he looks to be in good shape, maybe his best since going into the 2006 season. That bodes well for the entire unit.

It will be interesting to see how the roster shakes out. The Bears have gone with as few as five linebackers at times, but they're almost guaranteed to keep six. Hillenmeyer might need an injury or a seventh slot to make the team. He's still working his way back from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. When he was last healthy, he was the most effective defender on the field for the Bears. Yes, the coaching staff values their "make the play'' grade higher than anything else in film review. Hillenmeyer graded out tops on the defense for the 2007 season. The value in keeping him is easy to see--he can play in the middle as well as on the strong side and while he won't be a demon on special teams, he has the ability to fill a role. While the Bears opened 2008 with six linebackers, they moved to seven in Week 3 as LaRocque took the place of safety Brandon McGowan when he was placed on injured reserve. LaRocque was essentially a specialist for Dave Toub on special teams. He didn't hold a role on defense. He was already facing an uphill battle to make the roster with the personnel additions before a lower back injury sidelined him during the offseason program. He could be Hillenmeyer's primary competition for a seventh slot and health will no doubt be a factor.

The Bears are confident Tinoisamoa will be much better than their last ex-Ram reclamation project on defense. The only thing that prevented the 2007 trade for Adam Archuleta being a colossal failure was that the Bears only forked over a sixth-round pick for Lovie Smith's former player. Tinoisamoa should be reinvigorated with a change of scenery and motivated by a one-year contract with an eye toward free agency. Freeman was someone the Bears called a "value pick" in the fifth round as they had a higher grade on him. He could be in a special teams role quickly. Williams made the most noise in his four seasons during the offseason program. Once the heir apparent to Briggs on the weak side, he went a long way toward securing a roster spot but will be hard pressed to get playing time without an unforeseen development.

The upside: No question, after a two-year layoff Urlacher returns to Pro Bowl form. That would be not just a sign that he was back on top of his game at 31, but that the line was playing better and more consistently than it has over the last two years. If Tinoisamoa can be a productive run defender on first and second down, that will also be a plus for a unit that had to go to eight men in the box too often last season.

The downside: Urlacher remains a good player getting paid like he's at an elite level and Tinoisamoa is the next coming of Archuleta. The good thing is there is plenty of depth here so the defense could handle the latter. The former might make that $18 million, one-year extension handed out about this time last summer look unnecessary.

On the hot seat: Hillenmeyer is in a battle to make the roster but Urlacher is the player the club wants to see more from. If he can make the game-changing plays the organization became accustomed to, the defense will be a lot closer to having its bite back.

Final thought: The thing that doesn't really get discussed in the shuffling on the coaching staff is Bob Babich's return to his former role as linebackers coach. He's no longer calling the plays with Smith taking over that chore, but Babich is back in place where he was from 2004 to 2006 as the position coach. He was regarded for doing a fine job and getting back in this role could be a plus for the unit, especially with some young players to mold like Freeman and Roach. It starts up front but this remains the strength of the defense.

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24 Comments

Looks to me that we will have a starter quality linebacker sitting on the bench. Doesn't it make sense to explore trading one of them to bolster some other part of the team? Looking at who is most tradeable, #1 is Lance Briggs, but it won't help the team getting rid of a pro-bowl player. #2 is Urlacher, and I think it is reasonable to think there may be a team out there that would over-value him.

I don't see the Bears keeping (7) LB's on the opening day roster. With concerns along the D-line, secondary and WR positions I can't imagine the Bears trimming down one of those areas to keep an extra LB that would only contribute on ST's....

They need to keep (10) D-lineman, (10) DB's, at least (6) WR's, (8) O-lineman, (3) RB's, (3) TE's, (1) FB(maybe), (3) specialist, (3) QB's (maybe) and the (6) LB's. That's your 53-man roster right their... The wiggle room for keeping a 4'th TE could fall to using him as the "H" back and dumping McKie altogether or they could go with (2) QB's but that seems unlikely considering our history with the position.

I also can't see a scenario where Hunter makes the final cut. Jamar Williams needs and opportunity to play, he can play all 3-spots and Roach can play 2 of the 3 and took Hunters job last season. Freeman was a very good player in college and he has the tools neccessary to play at the pro-level plus the team tabbing him a value pick is all the assurance we need that he will make the roster. Angelo loves to keep his draft picks as we all know !!

I see the depth as follows:

MLB: Urlacher, Williams
WLB: Briggs, Freeman
SLB: Tinoisamoa, Roach

LaRocque, Hunter, Malast and Rivera get the ax. LaRocque should be a candidate to return to the P-squad.


Go Bears !!

""Looking at who is most tradeable, #1 is Lance Briggs, but it won't help the team getting rid of a pro-bowl player. #2 is Urlacher, and I think it is reasonable to think there may be a team out there that would over-value him.""


There are a few problems with trading either of these players...

(1) Lovie is in the hot seat as is Angelo. The Bears have missed the playoff's 2-seasons in a row and patience is running thin. They need to start wining now !! It makes little sense to trade away either probowl caliber veteran from a unit that already has fallen from grace the past few seasons. We need to keep the horses in the stable to help get the Defense back to winning form, not trade them away because we want to keep a player like Hunter Hillenmeyer around. Roach beat him out last season and with the addition of Tino, Roach will already be hitting the bench so keeping Hunter makes even less sense...

(2) Angelo chose to resign Briggs long term for a reason, he is a stud. I'm not confident that Roach, Hunter, Williams, Freeman, Malast or Rivera could fill in without missing a beat in Brigg's absence....

(3) Uralcher is the face of the franchise, he still sells tickets and Jersey's. Yes he is 31-yr's old, came back from a few surgeries the season before last but he also has a large contract that another team would have to take on if they traded for him. His cap-hit alone will deter some teams and his neck/back surgeries may deter a few more....


Go Bears !!

I think Brian will bounce back this year even though he still is better than most linebackers even when hurt. I would take a hurting Urlacher over an unknown.

Briggs will stay at that high level and I hope all of them stay healthy.

The other side is a big question mark. I hope Roach and Tinoisamoa step it up and hopefully one of them becomes that missing link.

Then again, it all starts with the front four. No pass rush = misery for the rest of the team.

What we can do is place some people on ir reserve with mysterios injuries so we can keep more useful guys

""What we can do is place some people on ir reserve with mysterios injuries so we can keep more useful guys""


If you go on IR your done for the season.... What benefit would any team or player get out of that ??


Just cut the fat, keep the more useful guy's and release the rest of them.

Go Bears !!

I think that with marinelli working his magic on the defensive line...the linebackers will be much better this year. you know that u need the front four first. Urlacher,s sacks will rise this year..plus with Lovie in charge of the defense, everyone should be better

DT keep the blockers off the LB's.

Anoynomous said it best "it all starts with the front four"

Its nice to see our depth here w/ Urlacher getting up in age.

Strong side linebacker is mainly a garbage man whose main job is taking on blockers. While Hillemeyer's play fell off last season, he was generally pretty good. These guys never get recognized or make the Pro Bowl, but they're necessary to having a good defense. Ed O'Bradovich did a lot of this when he played, and there was an entire O'Bradovich cheering section in the east stands in Wrigley Field.

I'm hoping for Tinoisamoa to be an improvement too, but I'm concerned about his lack of size. Once again, Lovie Smith goes for an undersized player just because he's quick. I don't see how that's going to work for this position, though Tinoisamoa might be one of those exceptions who plays bigger than his size.

Tinoisamoa seems to be the real deal, actually 7 seasons is good as Url is getting old/slow. We need some depth at that position. (good depth would help)
I'll believe Brian bounces back when I see it.

I'll go along with Briggs as a constant and consistent performer, but Urlacher has been anything but. Like some basketball players,at times he seems to disappear even though he is theoretically on the field. I can sympatize with injuries taking their toll but cannot believe there were not better options on the bench when he was missing coverages or getting knocked aside by smaller and ostensibly slower blockers. The last year or two it was hard to believe he was ever an all-pro. He looked much more like the guy who deserved the tag as the most overrated linebacker in football.One hopes that the injuries were the factor in his dismal performances, and he might have gained a bit more respect if he had volunteered for a cut in salary instead of seeking a new and more lucrative contract, ignoring the one he already had. He'll have to prove a lot to me before I'll accept him as worth what he gets paid.

The linebacker position should be one of the strengths of the team this year. Would you not have to say that the linebackers would probably rank in the top 5 in the league as a unit, particularly if Urlacher returns to form. Pisa is faster than Hillenmeyer who seemed to be a step or two behind TE's, Rb's or slot recievers on pass patterns, even before his injury and Roach had some cover challenges as well.

Pisa also has recorded pretty good tackle numbers at St. Louis in the past years. If he wins the starters position it seems to be an upgrade in speed which should help the coverage ability on slants etc.

As Creighton said if the D line gets any pressure the entire D will benefit. The defense looks to have a good year given the depth at all positions on the D except the free safety position, which is still up in the air, although Graham may be a great one we will see.

I really didn't think much of Nick Roach; I couldn't find him anywhere on the TV screen last year, and the number of tackles he recorded last year, which was somewhere in the 30s, backs it up. He's not a play maker, and I don't see much upside to him.

I hope and think Pisa Tinoisamoa will do well, and I would give the backup position to Hunter Hillenmeyer, unless one of the younger guys, other than Marcus Freeman who I would want to keep anyway, really steps it up and shows promise. Hunter's not flashy, but you can count on him to be solid.

Urlacher, Briggs, Tinoisamoa, Williams, Freeman, Hillenmeyer. Looks like a solid no-nonsense group to me.

By BensonSucks on July 15, 2009 8:40 AM

"They need to keep (10) D-lineman, (10) DB's, at least (6) WR's, (8) O-lineman, (3) RB's, (3) TE's, (1) FB(maybe), (3) specialist, (3) QB's (maybe) and the (6) LB's. That's your 53-man roster right their... The wiggle room for keeping a 4'th TE could fall to using him as the "H" back and dumping McKie altogether or they could go with (2) QB's but that seems unlikely considering our history with the position."

Lovie usually keeps 9 D-linemen on the 53 man, but could go with 10: Harris, Harrison, Dusty, Adams, Brown, Goon, Gilbert, Melton, and Izzy. Anderson could be on the bubble if he looks bad in camp and in Pre Season he may be gone. Toeaina is as good as gone or at least he is on the practice squad. Going with 6 DT's and a swing is a lot for just two positions. 4 DT's and a swing would actually be normal.

8 guys for the O-Line seems really thin. 5 starters and you need two backups at OT, that leaves 1 backup for the interior. I would say they go with 9. They are probably going to go with two QB's not 3.

By Brad Biggson July 15, 2009 7:06 AM
"Hillenmeyer might need an injury or a seventh slot to make the team. He's still working his way back from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. When he was last healthy, he was the most effective defender on the field for the Bears."

You must be out of your mind Brad. Hunter the most effective defender on the team????? If he is so good they should have a spot waiting for till he is healthy, not the third man on the depth chart. When Urlacher had off season surgery last year they did not bring anyone in to replace him. I have lost all respect for you until you print a retraction saying Hunter is not very good.

Whoever suggested that Lovie and Angelo are on the hot seat needs to repeat those words into a tape recorder and listen to them for himself.

Lovie Smith is signed thru 2011. Angelo is signed thru 2013. Their salaries are guarenteed. McCaskey will not "eat" any salary. They will not be fired before then. Plus, how can they be in the hot seat for having the 2nd most wins in the NFC the last 4 seasons? Had one below average year, just missed the playoffs last year, went to the playoffs twice, and made one superbowl. In the past years, only the Giants have done better by winning one superbowl during that span.

Lovie Smith is a top 10 coach in the NFL. Angelo has his weak points with drafting first round talent, but the rest of his regime has been stout.

There is nothing to worry about with teh Linebackers on this team. They are the deepest position on the team. I agree that 6 will make the team. The proposed back-ups should be Williams, Hillenmeyer, and Freeman. That is a stout group of linebackers. Maybe only the Steelers have a better LB core in teh entire league.

Bears will go 14-2, and win the superbowl this year.

Go Bears!!

Briggs should be in the middle. He has the better anchor at the point of attack and he hits like a hammer. Urlacher is good, but he is a chase and pull down tackler. Which is fine, but Briggs has that Ray Lewis type mentality and likes to bring the lumber. When 54 steps aside, put 55 in there and move Jamar Williams to the WLB. Its also time to move Hillenmyer out. Hes okay, but you need someone with a little more playmaking skills these days. Offenses are becoming more complex every day and these TE's coming out of college are 260 pound WR's. Urlacher looked like an old LB last year. If he doesnt start playing back to form, that big $$$$ extension is going to look foolish..

By Brad Biggson July 15, 2009 7:06 AM
"Hillenmeyer might need an injury or a seventh slot to make the team. He's still working his way back from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. When he was last healthy, he was the most effective defender on the field for the Bears."

ahhhh.....HOW DARE YOU SAY SOMETHIG I DONT AGREE WITH BRAD!!!! DID YOU NOW TAHT I AM ALWWAYS RAIGHT ANS I ONLY GOVE FACTS????? I HAVE LOST AL RESPECT FOR YOU BRAD UNLES YOU AGREE WITH ME ANS TELL ME I AM ALLWAYS RIGHT AND I ONLY GIVE FCATS!!!! ans i now some of uyo loosers are thinking weel gee crap-ton, brad is a well respeected sports writer who has a job unlike you. i dont think he realy cares waht you think. ans i say U LOOSERS ARE RIGHT *sob sob*. im holding my stuffed staley da bear ans i will hold him untill if all aslepp crying....:(

but you guys now me old anonymous/crap-ton. jus trying to bee posative...

p.s. "i will be outside soilder field in a hot pink panties that say spank me" so get youre video recorders out you naughty naughty boys!

Who is Brad Biggson???

OK i read all your comments and all brads facts and views....I do not like Bob Babich at all,Period.Lance should move to MLB and Urlacher To WLB very true.Hillenmeyer Should not have been a starting LB anywhere...ever.hopefully we have a good line to help the LB's.Marinelli is i belive a good line coach...so...now we need good play from the "d" as a whole...But i belive the currant coaching staff as a whole except taub and marinelliare or should b on the hot seat especially Turner and Babich.

Joey LaRocque was one of the best special teams players on the squad last season. We might need him as Hunter is anything but an ST player. With Williams getting better Hunter is also my Nr.1 candidate to be cut. Rivera and Malast can end up on PS-squad at best.
The rest is clear.

BTW
Watch D.Deleston in camp;-)


""Lovie Smith is signed thru 2011. Angelo is signed thru 2013. Their salaries are guarenteed. McCaskey will not "eat" any salary. They will not be fired before then. Plus, how can they be in the hot seat for having the 2nd most wins in the NFC the last 4 seasons? Had one below average year, just missed the playoffs last year, went to the playoffs twice, and made one superbowl. In the past years, only the Giants have done better by winning one superbowl during that span.""


SO, your saying the McCaskey's didn't fire Ditka with a few years left on his deal ?? They didn't fire Wanny with several years left on his deal ?? They didn't fire Jauron with a few years left in his deal either ?? They didn't quietly force Mark Hatley to resign ?? I know they told the press it was a "mutual agreement" and it was time for both parties to move on, we all know what that means !!

Having the second most wins in the NFC is nice but, the league is a "show me what you have done for me lately" type league. If the Bears blow this year you don't think Lovie will be in trouble ??? Missing the playoff's 3-straight years after a flash in the pan 13-3 SB runner up season !!!

"The proposed back-ups should be Williams, Hillenmeyer, and Freeman. That is a stout group of linebackers."

So your saying Roach goes from starter to scrap heap and Hillenmeyer goes from losing his job to Roach to taking his roster spot ??? That makes little sense. Hunter is slow, he is a liability when he is on the field because he can't cover a lick..... Roach may not be flashy but he is more athletic and can at least run with TE's and RB's. Were talking about a backup position anyway, Tino will start so it looks to be between Roach and Hunter for a backup role. I'll put my money on Roach.


Go Bears !!

Hunter? has not showed me anything, Babich? he's lucky to have a job after that ppoor D Coaching last year.
Wonder How Rod and Lovies boy Babich will get along this year if the D falters.... Url looked lost, the scheme had as much to do with that as his injuries. Really hope Pisa is the man as we need someone to step up and Im not counting on Og/Harris/Url :(

Rod/Adams/Harrison and maybe Brown/Briggs/Pisa will lead the way?

Mike,
Urlacher to WLB? Briggs to MLB? You got one half of that correct. Urlacher is not instinctive enough to play the weak side. If anything, he would be much better suited with his size and read skills to play on the strong side, or OLB in a 3-4.

Briggs could play any spot in the linebacker group, and was originally drafted to play strong side (until Lovie came on board the following season). He has the versatility to be a Pro Bowler at any of the 3 spots, but I like him right where he is.

It remains to be seen whether Babich is better as a position coach. When he was the LB coach in St. Louis, and then in Chicago, he had a linebacker-focused defensive coordinator: Lovie in St. Louis, Chico in Chicago. Now that Lovie will only be calling the plays, and coaching the nickel backs, we will get to see whether Babich is a teacher that can get the most out of our LB group. But let's not get crazy and move anyone around yet. Urlacher, if fully healthy going into camp, should not take 6-7 games to round into form, and that should help.

But he still does not shed well, and over-runs a lot of plays. His pursuit angles are too lateral, and with his speed, he needs to knife more like Briggs does. He has support outside, but no one is ever trailing him to the ball, so when he gets to the gap where the ball is intended, he can easily be sealed away from a cutback, which has killed us for several years. If you watch how Briggs blows up running plays, he pursues to a point, and then commits to a hole, but he doesn't just jump through....He does it with the intent to drive the play back to the pursuit if he doesn't get him. If Urlacher knifed from the inside out, he would force the play to the seal on the edge, and completely disrupt the blocking scheme. Nothing like a 260 lb. missile shooting across the face of the blockers to take them off their path....

To me, that is what has separated Urlacher from the greatest linebackers to ever play this game. He has all the physical skills, but has never been coached up to play the position like he could. Singletary working with him as a young player would have taken care of it. Instead, he still plays like a rover (safety) like he was in college. He tries to run around blocks, and uses his speed and strength as his only tools.

He is still one of the most dynamic players in the NFL over the last several years on defense, but he could have dominated on a level not achieved since Butkus with the right coaching.

I won't say much about Turner, because he has a chance with Cutler to show what he can do when the pieces are in place. Franchise LT, Franchise RB, Franchise QB, and some decent receivers. If he can't get it done this year, then he doesn't deserve any second chance. If he can, we can be a pretty dynamic offense in 2009.

Joe F., astute observations re.Briggs and Urlacher. I'm not sure I agree about better coaching being needed for Urlacher. Coaching requires a person willing to be coached who does not already think he knows it all, as well as a coach who knows what he's doing. I think there are players who simply refuse to be coached, for whatever reason. To correct bad habits, a player has to acknowledge that he has them, and that's tough to do for many of the ego-oriented players making their millions these days.

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This page contains a single entry by Brad Biggs published on July 15, 2009 7:06 AM.

Cassel contract just one deal that could pave way for Cutler's pay day was the previous entry in this blog.

15 days to Camp: The comings and goings on defense and more is the next entry in this blog.

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