For as long as I’ve been watching football, the Chicago Bears and strong inside linebacker play have been synonymous. And beginning in 2018, Roquan Smith was set to be next up in a long line of studs. But with his trade out of town, the Roquan era is over.
So … what’s next for the Bears? Let’s discuss.
Get to Know A.J. Klein, Sterling Weatherford, Nicholas Morrow, and Jack Sanborn
Once led by Roquan’s star power, the Bears don’t have starpower to headline the group. And that is going to feel a bit different. But that is OK, because what Chicago’s collection of linebackers lacks in big names it hopes it can make up for in depth and scheme fit.
With that in mind, we should get to know some of the players set to take over in the middle of the Bears defense.
Nicholas Morrow was a free agent addition who was probably better suited for the WILL linebacker role that Smith was occupying before his departure. And he has experience as a starter in that role in this defense, setting career bests in tackles (78), tackles-for-loss (8), quarterback hits (6), and sacks (3) while playing in 14 games (11 starts) in 2020. A foot injury kept him out of playing in 2021, but he will soon get an expanded look an an opportunity to make some plays.
Sterling Weatherford was a post-preseason waiver wire addition from the Colts who was balling this summer:
Jack Sanborn is the people’s choice to get a lion’s share of the newfound reps Smith is leaving behind. And for what it’s woth, Sanborn already got a start under his belt when he was Chicago’s starting SAM linebacker on Monday Night Football against the Patriots. And Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams appears ready to give Sanborn a look at the WILL spot starting today:
A.J. Klein was a 31-year-old throw-in from Baltimore in the Roquan trade. In addition to his time with the Ravens, Klein has experience with the Panthers, Saints, and Bills. Klein hasn’t provided much impact since 2020 (16 games, 11 starts, 5 sackes, 75 tackles, 9 quarterback hits, 5 tackles-for-loss), but there isn’t an expectation that he’ll need to be a big-time player here.
But Who’s Going to Take Roquan’s Place Long Term?
Not to be a forgotten piece in this puzzle, but figuring out who will take Smith’s snaps in years to come is pretty important. When the Bears traded Robert Quinn, it was easy to line up Trevis Gipson and Dominique Robinson as next-man-up types with some upside. But Chicago doesn’t have that type of young player at the linebacker position to fall back on after the Roquan trade. So, at some point down the road, we’ll go deep diving into draft possibilities.
In the meantime, I feel as if it is worth underscoring that Dane Brugler’s top-50 NFL Draft prospects update features just two off-ball linebackers making the cut. Clemson’s Trent Simpsons is Brugler’s 14th-highest-ranked overall prospect, while Arkansas’ Drew Sanders checks in at 49th. In other words, it is tough to envision the Bears using their first-round pick to fill this void.
Matt Eberflus and Alan Williams Get to Build a Defense in Their Vision
I think Bears Head Coach Matt Eberflus was not-so-subtly hinting at the team’s future plans at the position with how he talked about Smith.
You’ll want to follow this thread, for good measure:
That Eberflus — the Colts’ defensive coordinator at the time — wasn’t pounding the table to take an off-ball linebacker who went a few picks after his team’s spot over an interior offensive lineman feels notable. So while the Bears are projecting to have a top-15 pick in next year’s NFL Draft, and a Roquan-sized hole to fill, it is tough to envision this team using that type of draft capital on a player at that position. Especially when Eberflus was a part of the Indy regime that took Darius (Shaquille) Leonard in the second round of that same draft.
In the end, weakside linebacker isn’t a must-have position right now. Not with needs along the offensive and defensive lines being what they are. But the Bears head coach giving off vibes that the team could likely find a suitable long-term fit in the middle rounds has my attention. And while that is a concern for the future, it should be noted that we’re moving weakside linebacker up the list of Bears offseason needs.