Whenever the discussion turns to linebackers, the first NFL team most knowledgeable fans think of is the Bears.
Bill George, Dick Butkus, Doug Buffone, Wilber Marshall, Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith … and the list goes on and on.
Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same, but while whatever hopes this Bears defense has of worrying its opponents again will hinge mostly on the men in the middle, only one starting linebacker is a sure thing.
Head coach Matt Eberflus earned his new gig working on the defensive side of the ball as a respected coordinator after making his bones as a linebackers coach, and one of his first hires was his linebackers coach in Indianapolis, Dave Borgonzi, who also spent two seasons in Tampa working with the defense and Lovie Smith, who you know mentored Urlacher and Briggs.
The one sure thing, of course, is Roquan Smith is the best player on the Bears’ defense today.
But highly unusual for a Bears team, the rest of the linebacker room is about as nondescript a group as we’ve seen in some time.
Borgonzi did a nice job of introducing us to all of them Tuesday at Halas Hall.
“We bring in Nicholas Morrow, we have Roquan, bring in Matt Adams from Indianapolis, who was with us for a few years,” Borgonzi said. “Then you have a guy like Joe Thomas, who has been in this system, who is a veteran eight years in the league. And Caleb Johnson, who was here and is a young, ascending player.
“Noah Dawkins, who we brought in is a guy that is new to the system but he can run. Then the rookies we brought in, the undrafted free agents, Jack Sanborn from Wisconsin, C.J. Avery from Louisville and Christian [Albright] from Ball State.
“That whole group, there’s nine guys, and I’m excited for all of them.”
Clearly the one to watch, however, is Morrow, who was general manager Ryan Poles’ first free-agent signing.
Scouts around the league rave about his athleticism and explosiveness when he arrives at the ball carrier.
Borgonzi said it’s all about speed, and that is why Morrow is such a perfect match with Smith.
“I always joke with these guys – I pull up their 40 times when they came out of college. Roquan ran a 4.51, and Nick ran a 4.52, so they’re both fast,” Borgonzi said. “I would say we have some of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, and that’s how I want them to play. But having those two guys that can run like they do, that’s a huge benefit for our defense.”
Ask Morrow who’s faster, and he’ll tell you with a huge grin, “I don’t know, we’ll see.”
Borgonzi amplified Tuesday why it’s so important.
“Playing linebacker in the NFL, whether it’s this defense, or any defense, if you ask 31 other teams, they’re going to say it’s important just because of the way the game is now,” Borgonzi said. “There’s playing more nickel. The game’s more open. So I think the days of being in base defense, where you’re playing 22 – two backs, two tight ends – those days are gone, because we still get that, but it’s more open now.
“So, to answer your question, speed is very important.”
Morrow says his introduction to Smith has been a real plus.
“It’s been cool. One, he’s fast. Then, two, his pre-snap reads are really good, so being able to anticipate pre-snap is helpful,” Morrow said. “Then, he always communicates to me to kind of get me going, so it’s been helpful.”
Of all the new additions, Morrow is the one the Bears seem to think has the best chance to be a real keeper. Other than possibly rookies Kyler Gordon or Jaquan Brisker, he appears to have the highest ceiling.
That he started games in each of his four seasons with the Raiders but never kept the job in spite of being active for all but three of 65 games is a concern, but perhaps explained by the huge step up in class from FCS Greenville to the NFL.
If he plays to his traits, and he and Smith become a well-oiled team, the hope is they’ll form one of the best linebacker tandems in the league.