Perry Fewell is in the process of figuring out how many linebackers he will play and who will be in his main middle linebacker this season.
Michael Boley, Chase Blackburn, Greg Jones and Mark Herzlich all are in the mix at middle linebacker. Fewell said typically he is looking for a two-down middle linebacker and then perhaps another middle linebacker to play on third downs or passing downs. Boley was the team's middle linebacker on passing situations.
As for who could be that two-down middle linebacker on first and second downs, Fewell pointed first to Blackburn.
"Chase goes back to that role," Fewell said. "Or Herzlich will have an opportunity to compete for that role. Greg Jones will have an opportunity to compete for that role. And Keith Rivers, we are giving him an opportunity to compete for that role also. So there's going to be competition."
The addition of Rivers, another athletic outside linebacker, gives Fewell more flexibility and options. But the defensive coordinator says he is looking for somebody to take control and step up as his middle linebacker.
"That is going to be an area of emphasis for us this year," Fewell said. "I sense that we are going to put it up for grabs. Whoever can take the bull by the horns and lead us will have the opportunity to step up and play."
GM Jerry Reese mentioned Boley as a candidate for the middle earlier in the offseason. Fewell said Boley can do it, but wondered if it was best for Boley and the team.
"Is that his best position?" Fewell asked. "I don’t think that is his best position in the long run, but he has the ability to do that."
Fewell is looking for a middle linebacker to take control in the classroom and become a leader. In the meantime, he and his coaching staff will have to figure out how to utilize their linebackers. He also has his wildcard linebacker/defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka in the arsenal as well.
"A lot of these teams are one-back spread teams and they throw the ball all over the place," Fewell said. "We talk in terms of being a two-down MIKE and then having a third-down middle linebacker. But what is a two-down MIKE? So we might have to redefine that a little bit as we continue to evaluate what offenses are doing in the National Football League."
Fewell could potentially play more lineups with three traditional linebackers and fewer three-safety packages. But the defensive coordinator likes his three-safety looks and said he wants to keep that in his defensive arsenal, even with Deon Grant remaining an unsigned free agent.
"We have talked about that," Fewell said when asked if he could potentially use fewer than three safeties with the addition of Rivers. "We are just going to wait and see. Obviously we like that particular package and we don't want to lose that particular package. That is valuable for us."
"But with the addition of the linebackers that we have, we can be a little bit more creative," he added. "We just have to figure out who goes where, who can learn the best and we will take it from there."