Linebacker suddenly a concern for Bears

Nick Roach is the only experienced candidate for the starting job at strong side linebacker. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Normally a position of stability, linebacker morphs into an area concern for the Chicago Bears in 2011 with just two starters -- Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs -- currently under contract.

Bears coach Lovie Smith predicts an infusion of youth at the position through the upcoming draft or free agency.

"This year, when you look, we don’t have a lot of linebackers signed," Smith said. "We’re gonna have to bring somebody in. But I like the play that we’ve gotten from our backups. Our backups have really stepped up."

Whether they’ve done so sufficiently remains in question with the team looking ahead to the April draft and free agency once the lockout comes to conclusion. In addition to adding youth at the position, the club needs to determine how to fill the remaining starting role at strong side linebacker alongside Urlacher and Briggs.

At this point, the only candidate currently under contract with any real experience is Nick Roach, a rising fifth-year player, who started in six games and contributed 11 tackles.

"It’s hard for me to talk about some of those [other] players when we only have a couple of guys really signed right now," Smith said. "Just talking about last year, Nick Roach has started a long time for us. Nick, Pisa [Tinoisamoa], all those guys have started. Brian Iwuh, when he filled in for Lance Briggs, [he] played well; would’ve gotten the game ball if we had beaten Seattle [on Oct. 17]."

The problem right now, though, is Tinoisamoa and Iwuh aren’t under contract. An unrestricted free agent, Tinoisamoa missed all or parts of seven games in 2010 and wants to return in 2011, but acknowledged his injury history as a potential hindrance to striking a new deal with the Bears.

Tinoisiamoa posted 51 tackles last season, in addition to a sack and a forced fumble.

Iwuh led the Bears with 12 tackles (10 solo) in his only start last season, and finished the year tied for second in special-teams stops (18). The Bears attempted to sign Iwuh to a multi-year contract prior to the lockout, and it’s likely the sides will come to an agreement once NFL business resumes.

Rod Wilson, who saw his most significant action filling in for an injured Roach against Detroit on Dec. 5, was signed last September to replace Hunter Hillenmeyer, but doesn’t appear to be in the team’s plans for 2011. Wilson and his representatives haven’t heard from the team since the end of the season.

So in terms of potential candidates currently on the roster for the vacant starting spot on the strong side, there’s just Roach -- who was tendered a one-year offer earlier this month -- along with Chris Johnson and Patrick Trahan, a pair of rookies in 2010 who in January signed reserve/futures contracts.

It’s also worth noting that although Urlacher and Briggs show no signs of declining play, they’re 32, and 30, respectively. (Urlacher will be 33 in May).

"We’ll be [fine]. But you just have to keep in mind what we try to look for [at linebacker]," Smith said. "The linebacker [positions] -- [numbers] three through seven or [numbers] three through six -- have to be core special-teams players. Whoever we have in the mix, they’re gonna have to be core special-teams guys that we feel really good about."