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On the first defensive series in the Bears’ 2021 season finale against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium, Roquan Smith lined up in his usual spot in the middle of the defense. Four yards from the line of scrimmage, in between Eddie Goldman and Bilal Nichols. To Smith’s left was fellow linebacker Alec Ogletree.
Fast forward just over two months and Goldman and Nichols have signed with new teams, while Ogletree — who was on a one-year contract — is now a free agent.
Also gone is veteran linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was released on Wednesday afternoon after being on the team for the last six seasons.
Smith and safety Eddie Jackson are the only remaining defensive players left from the 2018 team that wreaked havoc on the league. A time that seems so long ago.
But general manager Ryan Poles has already started to rebuild his defense. It started by signing defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Then the Bears signed linebacker Nicholas Morrow.
Ogunjobi fills the three-tech that coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams have talked so highly about.
Morrow’s exact position in this 4-3 defensive scheme, however, is still unknown.
Eberflus was also noncommittal at the NFL scouting combine on the position Smith will play in the defense.
“We haven’t decided that yet, a little bit too early in the process,” Eberflus said. “We know he is going to play inside backer. I can give you that.”
Darius Leonard (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) played in Indianapolis as the Will linebacker under Eberflus. Bobby Okereke (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) was the Mike and Zaire Franklin (6-foot, 235 pounds) served as the Sam.
The Will and Mike linebackers in the 4-3 defense will see the majority of the playing time. Leonard, who played in 16 games last season, played 1,001 defensive snaps (91.8 percent). Okereke appeared in all 17 games and finished with 1,073 snaps, which was good for 98.5 percent. And Franklin played 200 defensive snaps (18.3 percent).
Regardless of where the coaching staff ultimately plays Smith (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) and Morrow (6-foot, 225 pounds), they will be heavily involved in the defense. And even though there isn’t a specific position designation for the players in March, clearly the organization values linebackers who possess the speed and instincts to make plays all over the field.
Morrow — who played safety in college at Greenville University — flashes when moving in space, especially when he can come downhill and break on shorter passes. In the 2020 season, his nine passes defensed were the most among linebackers.
Smith, as Bears fans have come to know, has been a tackling machine since entering the league in 2018. He finished last season with 163 total tackles – fifth in the NFL.
The wild card for this tandem, though, will be Morrow and his ankle that caused him to miss the entire 2021 season. Plus, the Bears still do need another player to serve as the Sam linebacker.
The Bears may not have all the answers right now on defense, but each new addition provides a bit more clarity on what Poles has envisioned for his team.
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