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.
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.