Linebackers are the heart and soul of most defenses, but in the case of the Chicago Bears, it's historically been one of their greatest positions. Four linebackers in the franchise's history have had their numbers retired, while six have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With the Bears running a 3-4 scheme over these last few seasons, the inside linebackers have had a unique set of responsibilities. While the outside linebackers' main focus is the pass rush, the guys on the inside handle the bulk of the run defense and are a major asset in downfield pass coverage.
Heading into this season, the Bears already had a stockpile of talent at the inside linebacker position, but they decided to add depth anyway. As the Bears get ready for their preseason opener, here are the players hoping to land what will be roughly six to seven spots on the active roster.
The eighth overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft has been consistent every time he's taken the field for the Bears. Smith led the team in tackles (139) and tackles for a loss (18) last season. He was also tied for third in both pass deflections (7) and sacks (4.0). And with Eddie Goldman playing in front of him again, and with improved depth around him, Smith is primed to have another big season for the Bears.
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Since joining the Bears in 2016, Trevathan has established himself as a leader; 440 of his 722 career tackles, 18 of his 29 tackles for a loss, 7.0 of his 10.0 sacks, 16 of his 24 quarterback hits, four of his seven forced fumbles, and 21 of his 39 pass deflections have come in a Bears uniform. His production is why he has kept his starting spot through the last few seasons, but one concern about Trevathan is his health. He's only played a full regular season in two of his five seasons (2018, 2020) in Chicago.
Heading into his ninth NFL season, Ogletree is playing on a one-year contract but likely already has a roster spot based on his résumé alone. Now, while he's only made one postseason appearance during his career (2017, Los Angeles Rams), Ogletree has posted impressive individual numbers throughout his career: 679 total tackles, 44 TFL's, 7.5 sacks, 18 QB hits, 12 forced fumbles, 57 deflected passes, 12 interceptions, and four defensive touchdowns. Assuming he makes the 53-man roster, he will serve this defense well as the Bears look to re-establish themselves as a top-10 unit.
This will be Jones' second go-round with the Bears, as he first played for them from 2014 to 2017. He spent the last three seasons with the Detroit Lions working on his craft. And now he returns to Chicago with 439 career tackles, 17 TFLs, 7.0 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, 16 pass deflections, and four fumble recoveries under his belt. His experience makes him a prime candidate to land one of the backup spots behind Smith and Trevathan.
Iyiegbuniwe has only missed one game in his previous three NFL seasons, so he's displayed durability, which has come in handy for a team that's had its share of injuries during that time. The former Western Kentucky standout has recorded 21 tackles in his young career, and most of his impact is felt on special teams. Considering the veterans that are ahead of him on the depth chart, special teams will be the key to keeping his roster spot.
This Maryland alum was a fringe prospect when the Bears signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2018, but has worked his way through the team's system. After spending his rookie season on the practice squad, Woods found his way onto the active roster via special teams. He does have 24 career games under his belt (19 tackles), but like Iyiegbuniwe, Woods must navigate a stacked depth chart to stay on board.
Calitro has bounced around between Seattle (2018), Jacksonville (2019), and Denver (2020) so far in his career, and has appeared in 42 games along the way. He's posted 88 tackles and has turned himself into a major contributor on the bench. He now looks to do the same with the Bears on a one-year, $920,000 deal.
Here's the one player on this list with the biggest hill to climb. Johnson is an undrafted rookie out of FCS Houston Baptist, where he accounted for 278 tackles, 27 TFLs, and 10.0 sacks from 2016 to 2020. The production at the collegiate level was there. But now he not only needs to translate that production over to the pro ranks, but he must also shake both the small school and undrafted labels.