Dick Butkus

Bears lofty LB history entering new phase with different, bigger edge rushers

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Bears lofty LB history entering new phase with different, bigger edge rushers

This story starts in one direction, from an appraisal of the greatest linebackers in the history of the game by one of the great personnel minds in the history of the NFL. And then it circles back to the Bears, who for the last several years have been going in an interesting direction at the position, a direction with some implications for their short- and longer-term futures.

It’s also a look at where the NFL has been and is trending in the pivotal area – for the Bears and others – of rush linebacker. An overarching Bears question is whether their edge rushers can deliver a winning pass rush that a secondary coming off three straight 8-interception seasons desperately needs.

First, some backdrop and context, then the Bears.

NFL.com has put together a ranking of the 47 (nice round number) greatest linebackers of all time. Not just NFL.com, though: The list is the work of Gil Brandt, now a senior analyst for NFL Media but also one of the legends who combined with Tex Schramm and Tom Landry to form the original foundation of the Dallas Cowboys beginning in 1960. Gil pioneered many of the personnel metrics and principles that are still operational in the NFL in different iterations.

Point is, Gil is one of those “elders” who have seen and remained relevant through just about every iteration the NFL game has gone through. (Great societies treasure their elders; sports doesn’t do that enough, too often casting the great mind aside as being left behind by the times. Gil is one of those treasures.)

To that end, what makes the Brandt ranking very noteworthy is that he has factored in schemes from 4-3 (Dick Butkus. Brian Urlacher, Ray Nitschke) to 3-4 (Lawrence Taylor, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling) to “Flex” (Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan), from historic (Bill George, Chuck Bednarik) to current (Luke Kuechly, DeMarcus Ware).

Some of the rankings are surprising (Ted Hendricks, 4; Ray Lewis, 12; Nick Buoniconti, 41). But to this writer, whose first NFL game involved Bednarik and who’s seen a great deal of every one on the list except Connor and Les Richter, it’s worth a stroll through some great history, and it IS some true perspective.

Parenthetically, Gil lists six Bears among his elite 47: Butkus (No. 3), George (7), Mike Singletary (16), Urlacher (19), George Connor (28) and Joe Fortunato (39).  

Getting to the main Bears point

Gil’s listing sparks some thoughts on what is unfolding at the linebacker position for the Vic Fangio Bears.

For all of the winds of change blowing through the Bears offense, subtle ones are playing out on defense as well, a unit that is a base 3-4 but spends more of its time in a 4-3 for nickel matchups. And in an NFL that tilts toward the pass (Bears opponents threw on 56.8 percent of their plays in 2017 despite being ahead far more of the time than not), the issue of pass rush becomes paramount, with the Bears losing more than one-third (14.5) of their tied-for-seventh sack total (42).

With apologies to the inside push from Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, the issue is linebackers. About which Fangio had an interesting conclusion:

“The days of the pure speed rushers – the Fred Deans, even the Derrick Thomases – are pretty much over,” Fangio said. Notably, Thomas was Gil Brandt’s No. 2 linebacker of all time, behind only LT.

What made the Brandt rankings and the Bears situation an interesting juxtaposition is that virtually the only one of the top 15 or so linebackers topped 250 pounds. (Also notable that it was Thomas, 255, suggesting that the late Kansas City edge terror would have more than fit in the current NFL).

The Bears, who this offseason moved on from Pernell McPhee (270 pounds) and DE/LB Willie Young (258), currently have as their top edge rushers Sam Acho (260 pounds), Leonard Floyd (251), Aaron Lynch (270) and rookie Kylie Fitts (260). Ostensibly, not a group of sack threats because of size. But they are in absolute step with where the NFL is getting its sacks now, particularly Floyd, straight out of the Hendricks model, just 30 pounds bigger.

Of the top 10 linebackers for sacks in 2017, only San Diego’s Melvin Ingram (247) is smaller than 250. Where once the Hendrickses (225), Kevin Greenes (240), Charles Haleys (245) and Lawrence Taylor (237) once ruled, giants now dominate.

Where pure speed was once the sine qua non on the outside, now not so much.

“We talk about being able to win three ways as a rusher,” said Bears outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley. “Winning with speed, winning with power or winning with ‘hands.’

“When you can win on the edge with power, that’s gives you a huge advantage in the run game and the pass game. What’s really hard for tackles is having to sit in there on a guy that’s really powerful.”

The Bears have crusaded and schemed to add bulk to Floyd, with some success. Acho and Lynch already have it, with Lynch possessed of a sack history that was the reason for the Bears’ pursuit of him.

“Aaron is one of these guys who’s become a ‘big’ man,” Staley said. Lynch played in college at 242. “The blessing we have with Aaron is that he can run; when he came out, was running 4.68, with really good change of direction. So he’s got an extremely good takeoff for a man that size.

“We really feel like he brings a dimension to our team that we’re excited about. He’s a guy that can [win] all three [ways: power, speed, hands].

“A guy like Leonard can beat you outside, he can run, can beat you with hands, and then because he has so much speed, his power is going to come [off that speed]. And he’s only 25 years old, a guy with a lot in his body. He’s primed to have a really good run here in Chicago.”

NFL personnel compare Roquan Smith to Lance Briggs with speed

NFL personnel compare Roquan Smith to Lance Briggs with speed

Is Roquan Smith going to be the next great Chicago Bears linebacker?

Okay, draft night is probably too early to place such a hefty label on the No. 8 overall pick. Still, Smith will join a franchise with a rich history at the linebacker position.

From Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs more recently, the Bears have seemingly always featured other-wordly talent at linebacker. Smith's career is just beginning, but the comparisons are inevitable.

Laurence Holmes and Alex Brown discussed Smith's potential on NBC Sports Chicago Thursday.

"I had two NFL people with a lot of front office experience make this comp on Roquan, that he is Lance Briggs with 4.5 speed," Holmes said.

Brown took the conversation a step further, adding a player as talented as Briggs with Smith's speed is a Hall of Famer.

"Imagine that. We all know Lance Briggs without 4.5 speed and he was a monster, he said. "Lance Briggs with 4.5 speed is a Hall of Famer, in my opinion."

“I think it’s a heck of a compliment watching his highlights," Briggs said of the comparison to Smith. 

Briggs also noted: “I think he looks very dependable. I think he looks like a guy that guys can count on to make play after play after play."

Ironically, Smith got the discussion going himself during a conference call after the draft on Thursday night.

"It’s a great franchise. A lot of rich tradition, especially on defense," Smith said. "From way back with Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, all of those types of guys. It’s insane and I’m excited.

Former NFL quarterback and current Bleacher Report analyst Chris Simms compared Smith to seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis. 

"He’s a little Patrick Willis-ish," Simms said. "This guy is a special guy, he really he is, he is one of the safest picks in the draft, there is no doubt about that.

“He doesn’t care, he’s going to knock your head off if you’re there to be had."

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.