The basic assumption with the drafting of Marcus Freeman the linebacker out of Ohio State the Bears took in the sixth round was that he would compete for the SAM ‘backer spot. Word out of rookie mini-camp this weekend however has Freeman listed as a WILL ‘backer on the roster. Rightfully so by my estimate in that Freeman is built like a WILL at only 6-foot 239-pounds. He is not the type of player who fits the ideal mold for a SAM ‘backer in the 4-3 defense.
Leaving the question who exactly is going to compete with Hunter Hillenmeyer for the SAM spot? That spot in the line up struggled to show a consistent level of production last year. Sure it’s not as important as a position as the WILL spot that perennial Pro-Bowler Lance Briggs mans. But the Bears don’t need weak links in the defense piling up year after year either.
Last year Hillenmeyer began the year as the starter, but eventually was replaced by second year man Nick Roach. Roach however isn’t built like a SAM ‘backer and better fits the mold of a WILL backer as well. At only 6-foot-1 234-pounds Roach doesn’t have the size of the strength to hold up against the RT/TE combination on the strong side shift if the offense.
The same also goes for Jamar Williams who has been spoken of in high regard as a linebacker who can play all three linebacker spots, but can he play all three successfully is another argument. Williams is yet another 6-foot-1 237-pound fleet linebacker better suited to make plays in the open field utilizing his speed to cover a lot of ground in the flats.
Then there was rookie LB Joey LaRocque a special teams demon who may be tall enough at 6-foot-2 (not ideal height) to match up well with TEs, but he’s only 226-pounds further cementing his standing as a likely special teams player if he continues to stay on the 53-man roster.
So really is there a former draft pick on the roster who has the size, the build and the strength to hold up against the strong-side shift on running downs but is able to if need be cover a TE down the field on passing downs?
When looking at the roster the answer clearly is no, there is not a player who is likely to make the 53-man roster as be the type of player Hunter Hillenmeyer was at the peak of his career a mere two years ago. Hillenmeyer himself has not always been a good player, but he’s been good enough and made enough plays in critical situations to keep his job. Now however it appears that he is on the downside of his seven year NFL career and could be in a position to be replaced.
The only real player that looks like he’s a SAM ‘backer on the roster opposite middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is free agent signee Mike Rivera. Rivera as I talked about in previous blog posts seems like the obvious choice to be in competition to replace Hillenmeyer. Rivera is listed as 6-foot-3 254-pounds so he is the linebacker best built to hold up against the run. However it may be asking a lot of a non-drafted free agent signee to make the roster.
So that leaves the Bears in a bit of a pickle as they head to camp. Hunter Hillenmeyer is clearly on the down side of his career, the rest of the linebackers on the roster are small and undersized, and Mike Rivera is the undrafted free agent signee.
Clearly there must still be a level of confidence that Hillenmeyer can bounce back and revert to his 2007 season form where he had a career high 78-tackles. However if Hillenmeyer again struggles with injuries or just isn’t as productive as he was in 2007 the Bears could be looking for at a SAM ‘backer as a draft option in 2010.