Bears Senior Writer
The following is the seventh of nine position previews in advance of training camp.
The Bears’ linebacking corps will once again be led by fifth-year pro Roquan Smith, who has established himself as one of the NFL’s best players at his position.
The 2018 first-round pick from Georgia has been named second-team All-Pro each of the past two seasons. In 2020, he finished second in the NFL with 96 solo tackles and tied for second with 18 tackles-for-loss, the most by a Bears player since Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had 19 in 2002.
Last season, Smith recorded a career-high 163 tackles with 12 tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks and one interception that he returned 53 yards for a touchdown in a Week 2 win over the Bengals. He has compiled at least 100 tackles in each of his four seasons, the first Bears player to accomplish that feat in any four-year span since Lance Briggs did so in six consecutive seasons from 2004-09.
After thriving in 3-4 schemes coordinated by Vic Fangio (2018), Chuck Pagano (2019-20) and Sean Desai (2021), Smith is excited about transitioning to a 4-3 system under new coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
“I think it’ll be great,” Smith said during the offseason. “More opportunities to make some plays, so I think that’ll be big, even though I was making plays before. It’s just going to be sweet and everybody just running to the ball. It’s just more so about everyone having fun, not just me having fun and having a breakthrough season. I know what I can do. Everyone, if they watch the game, knows what I can do. Things don’t change overnight.”
The Bears addressed the linebacker position in free agency, signing veterans Nicholas Morrow, Matt Adams and Joe Thomas.
Morrow spent his first five NFL seasons with the Raiders, originally signing in 2017 as an undrafted free agent from Greenville University, which is located in southern Illinois about 50 miles east of St. Louis.
“In Nicholas we are getting a linebacker who plays the game fast, and he is instinctive and intelligent,” general manager Ryan Poles said after signing Morrow to a one-year contract. “He attacks the game with an edge and a mindset to be great. It is going to be exciting to see him come in and improve our defense with that mentality.”
Morrow appeared in 62 games with 29 starts from 2017-20, compiling 254 tackles, 20 tackles-for-loss, 4.0 sacks, two interceptions, 20 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. In 2020, he established career highs with 11 starts, 78 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks and eight pass breakups.
The 6-foot, 216-pounder returns after missing all of last season with an ankle injury. Hurt in a joint training camp workout with the Rams, Morrow returned to practice prior to the Raiders’ wild-card loss to the Bengals, but did not play in the game.
Adams spent his first four NFL seasons with the Colts, contributing primarily on special teams. The 6-0, 230-pounder is familiar with Eberflus, who served as Indianapolis’ defensive coordinator the past four years.
“We love Matt’s energy and play style,” Poles said after inking Adams to a one-year deal. “We look forward to seeing him compete on special teams as well as at the linebacker position.”
Selected by the Colts in the seventh round of the 2018 draft out of Houston, Adams played in 58 games with nine starts, registering 55 tackles and six tackles-for-loss. All nine of his career starts came in his first two seasons. Last year, he appeared in all 17 games, all as a reserve, playing just one snap on defense.
Thomas has appeared in 89 NFL games with 16 starts over seven seasons with the Packers (2015-17), Cowboys (2018-20), Texans (2021) and Ravens (2021). He has registered 218 tackles, 12 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Last season, Thomas played in five games with two starts with the Texans before being released Oct. 16. He then joined the Ravens and appeared in two contests, both as a reserve.
Thomas entered the NFL with the Packers in 2014 as an undrafted free agent from South Carolina State, where he was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s defensive player of the year and All-MEAC in 2013.
The 6-1, 227-pounder spent part of his rookie season on Green Bay’s practice squad. After a stint on the Cowboys practice squad in 2015, he rejoined the Packers, playing in 42 games with eight starts over three seasons and registering 110 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks.
Thomas spent the next three years with the Cowboys, appearing in 40 games with six starts and compiling 95 tackles and four tackles-for-loss.
Also competing for roster spots at linebacker will be second-year pros Caleb Johnson and Noah Dawkins and undrafted rookies Christian Albright, C.J. Avery and Jack Sanborn.
Johnson joined the Bears in 2021 as an undrafted rookie from Houston Baptist. Appearing in 14 games, all as a reserve, he tied for second on the team with seven tackles on special teams and recorded one tackle while playing five snaps on defense.
Dawkins has played in 17 NFL games, all as a reserve, over three seasons with the Buccaneers (2019) and Jets (2020-21), registering three tackles.
Albright appeared in 57 games over five seasons at Ball State, recording 260 tackles, 33.5 tackles-for-loss, 16.5 sacks, two interceptions, 13 pass breakups, nine forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Last year he played in 13 games and registered 65 tackles, 5.0 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, three pass breakups and one forced fumble. He was named all-Mid-American Conference third-team in 2018 and second-team in 2020.
Avery was a four-year starter at Louisville, where he led his team in tackles each of the last three seasons. He played in 59 career games over five years, amassing 349 tackles, 20.0 tackles-for-loss, 8.5 sacks, three interceptions, 19 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. Last season played in 13 games and recorded career highs with 97 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss and equaled a career high with 3.0 sacks.
Sanborn appeared in 44 games over four seasons at Wisconsin, generating 227 tackles, 27.5 tackles-for-loss, 10 sacks, four interceptions, eight pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Last year he was named first-team All-Big 10 after appearing in 12 contests and establishing career highs with 88 tackles and 14.5 tackles-for-loss while also recording 3.5 sacks. A Chicago area native, Sanborn attended Luke Zurich High School.
Third-year pro Trevis Gipson, who moves from outside linebacker to defensive end in the Bears’ new 4-3 defense, will look to pick up this year where he left off last year when he emerged as a key playmaker.
The Bears will launch their three-part documentary series “Meet the Rookies” powered by CDW on Tuesday, featuring behind-the-scenes footage with safety Jaquan Brisker, wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. and cornerback Kyler Gordon.
The top storylines to watch in the Bears offense in training camp this summer include the continuing development of promising young quarterback Justin Fields, who looks to take a big leap from Year 1 to 2.
The most intriguing battles for starting jobs in training camp are expected to be waged at both offensive tackle positions, with three young players among those vying for two spots.
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Bears Senior Writer