With a healthy Urlacher, Bears have depth at LB
Linebacker was the Bears' deepest position last season, and that depth was put to the test when opening-day starters Brian Urlacher (dislocated wrist) and Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) combined to play approximately one game all season between them.
Nick Roach, playing on the strong side in place of Tinoisamoa, and Hunter Hillenmeyer, in the middle for Urlacher, stepped in and performed well.
Hillenmeyer has started 69 games over the past six seasons, and he played some of his best football last season, finishing second on the club with 105 tackles, tying a career-best with 2.5 sacks and forcing 4 fumbles.
But the Bears still missed Urlacher's leadership and big-play ability.
"He is a (defensive) quarterback," coach Lovie Smith said. "A coach on the field. He calls out every formation, he knows what everyone is supposed to do."
The Bears' defensive leader will be 32 before training camp begins, but after missing practically all of the 2009 season, he could be primed to approach the level of play that got him voted to six Pro Bowls.
"Physically, he'll be good to go," Smith said. "(The wrist injury) could have been a good thing. He had a chance to sit out. No wear and tear on his body last year. We might have stolen a year."
Unrestricted free agent Tinoisamoa was re-signed, but he'll have to win his job back from Roach, who tied for the team lead with 10 tackles for loss in 2009 and played well enough in 15 starts to remain with the first team.
"Nick Roach is a good football player," Smith said. "He can do it all. He's a good rusher. We'll be comfortable with him there."
Jamar Williams has not progressed much from being a quality backup, but he turned in a monster game (19 tackles) last season while filling in for Lance Briggs.
Briggs, who took on more of a leadership role last season with Urlacher out, was voted to his fourth straight Pro Bowl and, at 29, continues to play at an elite level. He has replaced Urlacher as the team's best linebacker and easily led the Bears with 147 tackles and added a career-best 2.5 sacks last season.
Adding a healthy Urlacher and Tinoisamoa to the group of Briggs, Roach, Hillenmeyer and Williams gives the Bears an extremely deep, experienced and talented group. But they need Urlacher to stay healthy and to play close to his previous level to be special.