2022 report card: Bears need more big plays from linebackers

The Bears completely altered the fabric of their linebacker group when they traded Roquan Smith to the Baltimore Ravens on Halloween, just one day before the trade deadline.

Matt Eberflus originally envisioned Smith as a key cog in his 4-3 defensive scheme. That changed when contract extension discussions hit a snag between Smith and general manager Ryan Poles. Smith asked for a trade in August, but Poles declined to move him at the time.

Instead, the trade deadline proved to be the impetus needed to find a trade partner. Poles traded Smith to Baltimore for second- and fifth-round draft picks, along with linebacker A.J. Klein, who only briefly played for the Bears. After a flurry of trade deadline moves that sent Smith and Robert Quinn packing, the Bears' defense became a shell of its former self.

The Smith trade probably was a net negative, at least in terms of 2022 production - we'll wait and see what the Bears do with those draft picks - but it did allow an opportunity for undrafted rookie Jack Sanborn to find his role.

Here's a look back on what went well and what didn't at the linebacker position in 2022.


Smith was a tackling machine the first half of the season. He picked off 2 passes - including what was essentially a game-winner against Houston in Week 3 - and recorded 2.5 sacks. He earned his first career first-team All-Pro nod and his first Pro Bowl bid. But the positive for the Bears moving forward was that Poles avoided paying an off-ball linebacker $20 million per year - as the Ravens will be doing under Smith's recent contract extension.

Without Smith, Sanborn took on a starting role and looks like a diamond in the rough for Eberflus' defense. The rookie from Lake Zurich started six games and totaled 64 combined tackles, 2 sacks, 5 tackles for loss and 1 fumble recovery. He showed a nose for the football and a high level of discipline as a tackler.

The Bears signed Nicholas Morrow to a one-year contract in free agency. Morrow had been a starter with Las Vegas in 2020, but missed the entire 2021 season due to injury. Morrow proved he could be a starter in the league, totaling a team-leading 116 tackles.


Morrow is a smart player who knows the defense well and often is in position to make a play. He does not, however, make the type of game-altering plays on the ball that Eberflus is looking for in a stud linebacker for his system.

Sanborn missed the last three games of the season after suffering an ankle injury midway through a Week 15 contest against the Eagles.

The Bears never really developed a third linebacker for the 4-3 system, which requires three linebackers in the base defense. Matt Adams and Joe Thomas split time, with Adams missing several games because of injury. Both also were solid special teams players.

Defining moments

1. Smith began training camp by refusing to practice until he had a new contract. Several weeks into camp, Smith publicly requested a trade on the same morning that the Bears were set to host family fest at Soldier Field. That signaled that discussions were at an impasse. The Bears didn't trade Smith for another two months, but that might as well have been the end of the relationship.

2. In his second career start, Sanborn had 2 sacks, including one in the red zone, in a Nov. 13 contest against the Detroit Lions. He later had an interception that was wiped off the board by a questionable penalty. That game was Sanborn's arrival moment.

Contract status

Morrow, Adams and Thomas are unrestricted free agents. Sanborn is under the Bears' control for at least two more seasons. Sterling Weatherford, who played exclusively on special teams, also is under team control for two more seasons. The Bears signed Kuony Deng to a futures contract.

Grade: C+

Sanborn showed promise and Morrow was reliable, but the Bears need more big plays from their linebackers.


It's not out of the question that the Bears could spend a little more on a starting linebacker, but it would be somewhat surprising given all that just went down with Smith. There are lots of veteran options between Lavonte David, David Long, T.J. Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds, among others, but each of those players should command between $10-15 million per year.

A more likely scenario might be the Bears sticking with Morrow on another one-year contract and also drafting a linebacker with one of their nine picks in the upcoming draft. Eberflus likely wants to find a lanky linebacker more in the mold of Shaquille Leonard or Fred Warner.

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