LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Inspired by the Chicago Bears’ history of producing some of the greatest middle linebackers in NFL history, Tremaine Edmunds summed up his decision to sign with Chicago in free agency as a no-brainer.
“When you talk about great linebackers — in particular, middle linebackers — I mean, why wouldn’t you want to come to a place like this?” Edmunds said. “It’s such a great tradition.”
The Bears’ tradition of great middle linebackers stretches from Bill George and Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher.
Now Edmunds, a two-team Pro Bowler, is hoping to team up with T.J. Edwards, the other free agent linebacker the Bears signed, to form Chicago’s next great linebacking tandem.
Edwards grew up a Bears fan in the Chicago suburb of Lake Villa, and he remembers meeting Urlacher during a fan event in 2000. His parents were in tears upon finding out Edwards would be signing with Chicago.
“There’s a lot of guys who have played a lot of good football here,” Edwards said. “They understand how the game is supposed to look.”
The Bears made their big splash in free agency at the linebacker position, doling out a four-year contract worth $72 million to Edmunds and a three-year, $19.5 million deal to Edwards. After ranking last in the NFL in sacks and struggling with run defense, the Bears needed interior pass-rushers on the defensive line, but they didn’t want players as talented as Edmunds and Edwards to get away in free agency.
“It’s value,” general manager Ryan Poles said. “When you look at the board, we felt like those two players were at the top of their positions. We felt like the skill set was going to help our team, and we decided to go there. It made sense.
“I think you can get in trouble if you go heavy with the biggest need and you fire away there and you let really good players walk away because you’re too stuck on where you need to get players.”
Edmunds and Edwards are two players the Bears hope will not only help fix the league’s worst scoring defense (27.2 ppg allowed) and second-worst run defense (157.3 yards per game), but restore prominence to a position that brought this franchise to its last Super Bowl appearance.
Urlacher and Lance Briggs manned the middle of Lovie Smith’s defense for nine seasons while both earning first-team All-Pro honors. In four of those years, Urlacher led Chicago in tackles. The other five belonged to Briggs.
The Bears hope Edmunds and Edwards will prove Poles and the front office made the right decision last November when they traded Roquan Smith, who made first-team All-Pro last season, to the Baltimore Ravens for a second-round and fifth-round draft pick this year. The Ravens then signed Smith to a five-year, $100 million extension.
Coach Matt Eberflus mentioned “ball production” as one of the reasons the Bears moved on from Smith. In 4.5 seasons with Chicago, Smith totaled seven interceptions and one forced fumble while being credited with 16.5 sacks.
Edmunds had less production than Smith during his five seasons in Buffalo, where he totaled five interceptions, two forced fumbles and 6.5 sacks.
The numbers are one thing, and something can be said about most of Smith’s production coming as an off-ball linebacker in a 3-4 defense during the first four seasons of his career before Eberflus installed a new defense in 2022. Edmunds is a bigger linebacker at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds (Smith is 6-1, 236), and Edmunds’ upside, having already five seasons of NFL experience before turning 25 years old, is what has Chicago excited about the prospect of having found a better fit.
“The length, the speed, the coverage ability in terms of just the space that he covers, and Matt and his group think they can take him over the edge with some of the ball production,” Poles said.
Both Edmunds and Edwards played middle linebacker in Buffalo and Philadelphia, respectively, and both were responsible for calling the defense in 2022. While neither linebacker stated where they expected to fit into Eberflus’ defense, it’s interesting to note Edmunds made mention to the middle linebacker spot a handful of times during his introductory press conference at Halas Hall.
The offseason program will shine a light on who mans the middle and who is the weakside linebacker. Briggs weighed in on social media, saying Edmunds should in the middle with Edwards at weakside. Briggs also tweeted that he "absolutely loves what Poles has done so far."
The offseason will also expose gaps on the Bears’ roster and how the team will have to compensate for what it chose not to prioritize in free agency.
Edwards played in a Philadelphia defense that led the league in sacks (70) during its Super Bowl run. The effect that a stout pass rush has on his ability to play at a high level isn’t lost on the 26-year-old linebacker.
“It helps make my job easier,” Edwards said. “I think D-line is such an unselfish position in this league. There are so many things that are asked of them in terms of holding O-linemen so they can’t get to the second level, making sure they are in their gap, making sure they can win on pass rush. For me, it’s just getting in here and understanding how each guy fits, so I can play off of him.
“I’m excited. I really am. I’ve learned a lot from being with that D-line group and that defense as a whole, and I feel like I can bring some of those things here.”
The Bears are still looking for answers to fix their lackluster pass rush, which generated a league-low 20 sacks and 162 total pressures – 31 fewer than the Atlanta Falcons, who ranked 31st. Chicago signed versatile defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker during the first wave of free agency and later added a strong run stopper in DT Andrew Billings, but a lot of work remains up front.
Poles admitted there would be “weak spots” on the roster in 2023, and that the desire to fix everything in one offseason remains unrealistic. The type of players the Bears bring into the fold in Edmunds and Edwards is what this franchise is banking on leading this defense towards success.
“I’m trying to be great,” Edmunds said. “And I want to be coached by people that coach great players and coach good players and obviously want to be in a system and a program that’s had legends. The Chicago Bears are known for their linebackers, and I want to be able to write my story and be that next great linebacker here.”