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Bears 2023 position preview: Linebacker

Bears linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards
Bears linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards

The following is the seventh of nine position previews in advance of training camp.

The Bears made significant upgrades at the linebacker position in free agency by signing productive veterans Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards.

Edmunds, 25, spent his first five NFL seasons with the Bills after being selected by Buffalo with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2018 draft out of Virginia Tech. The 6-5, 250-pounder started all 74 games he's played, registering 565 tackles, 32.0 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks, five interceptions and two forced fumbles. He has recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his five NFL seasons.

Edmunds was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2019 and 2020, was named a Bills captain in 2019 at the age of 21 and has also started eight career playoff games. Last year he opened all 13 games he played, compiling 102 tackles, 6.0 tackles-for-loss, 1.0 sack and one interception.

Former Bears cornerback Leslie Frazier—a starter on the 1985 Super Bowl XX championship team—served as Edmunds' defensive coordinator in all five of his seasons in Buffalo. Frazier told in March that he texted Bears coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams to congratulate them on landing "one of the premier linebackers in our league."

"They're getting a tremendous player, a guy who has been to a few Pro Bowls, so that tells you that he's played at a high level," Frazier said. "And he's still a very young player. He's really ascended. He's not a guy who's reached his peak by any means. And he's a tremendous leader as well. Not only is he a good football player—a guy who can make plays—but his teammates, they really gravitate to him, and they look to him to lead, both on the field and off the field, in the locker room and the classroom. He's that type of guy."

Since arriving, Edmunds has been everything the Bears expected and more while anchoring the defense at middle linebacker. 

"He's just really vocal," said linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi, "when the huddle breaks, getting the defense lined up, just after the play talking with the guys. He loves football. He's great in the meeting room. He takes his job really serious. I think that's definitely rubbing off on the other guys. 

"Linebacker, it's almost like quarterback. They get the call in the huddle, and when the huddle breaks, they get everybody lined up. So he's the communicator. Having a guy that's confident, that has done it before at a high level, it gives everybody else confidence."

Edwards, a Chicago area native who grew up rooting for the Bears, spent his first four NFL seasons with the Eagles, appearing in 61 games with 47 starts and generating 370 tackles, 20 tackles-for-loss, 5.0 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. 

The 6-1, 242-pounder arrived in Philadelphia in 2019 as an undrafted free agent from Wisconsin and left after this past season as the leading tackler on a Super Bowl team. 

Last season Edwards, 26, compiled a team-high 159 tackles—the second most in Eagles history—helping Philadelphia win the NFC championship. He started all three playoff games, totaling 13 tackles, including six during the Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. 

"You can see the playmaking ability from him," Eberflus said in March after the Bears signed Edwards to a three-year deal. "His instincts, his strike. Really did a nice job of leading that Philly defense, so we're excited about that."

Edwards dreamed of playing for the Bears while growing up in Lake Villa, Ill.  

"Awesome story," said general manager Ryan Poles. "Really good player. Instinctive. He's going to help our defense get better. And how cool is it for a guy like that to come back to his hometown team and play? He is so fired up to be on this squad. He wanted to be here, which is really cool."

Edmunds and Edwards have made a quick transition with the Bears. 

"Both of those guys have played a lot of football," Borgonzi said. "This is a different system, but there's a lot of similarities to where they were at before, so I think there was a lot of carry over. They were able to come in and understand right away and play fast."

With the addition of Edmunds and Edwards, the Bears boast the NFL’s second-best linebacking corps, according to Pro Football Focus. In addition, Sam Robinson of ranked the unit as the fourth most improved position group in the league.

"We're excited about where [Edmunds and Edwards] are," Eberflus said. "And they've produced in the league, so it's a known commodity. Those guys are going to be valuable assets for our team for a long time."

The two free-agent signees join Jack Sanborn, who emerged as a key contributor last season as a rookie. An undrafted free agent from Wisconsin—where he played one season with Edwards—Sanborn excelled after becoming a starter following the midseason trade of Roquan Smith to the Ravens. 

Before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury in a Week 15 loss to the Eagles, the Chicago area native made six consecutive starts and recorded 59 tackles, 5.0 tackles-for-loss, 2.0 sacks and one fumble recovery.

Sanborn is expected back from his injury by the start of training camp next week. During his absence this spring, rookie fifth-round pick Noah Sewell gained valuable experience in OTA and minicamp practices. 

Sewell appeared in 33 games over three seasons at Oregon, registering 218 tackles, 20.5 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions, nine pass breakups, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Last year he was named second-team All-Pac 12 and was a Butkus Award semifinalist.

Sewell, who is the younger brother of NFL players Penei Sewell (Lions) and Nephi Sewell (Saints), brings versatility to the Bears. At Oregon, he played middle linebacker, but he also saw action at edge rusher and lined up in the slot in pass coverage.

"He's really instinctive," Borgonzi said. "He's around the ball. He's a really strong player. He's got good hands, good tackler. He's got a lot of upside … He's upbeat. He's eager to learn. He comes from a football family. He's another guy, even though he's young, he takes his job really serious."

Other linebackers who will compete for playing time on defense and special teams in training camp are veterans Sterling Weatherford, DeMarquis Gates, Dylan Cole and Kuony Deng; and undrafted rookie Micah Baskerville.