Bears 2022 LB review: Jack Sanborn emerges as potential long-term starter

The Chicago Bears wrapped the 2022 season with a 3-14 record, which culminated in a 10-game losing streak. But there’s still reasons to be optimistic about the future, including a boatload of salary cap space, the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft and the emergence of quarterback Justin Fields.

Here at Bears Wire, we’re going position by position through the 2022 Bears and grading every player. Next up is linebacker, which saw the departure of Roquan Smith at the trade deadline but the emergence of undrafted rookie Jack Sanborn.

Nicholas Morrow: B-

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Season stats: 116 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 2 pass breakups (17 games, 17 starts)

Morrow was one of Ryan Poles’ best free agent additions in an otherwise underwhelming class. Morrow led the Bears in tackles, and he set career highs in total tackles (116), solo tackles (83) and tackles for loss (11). He was an underrated contributor on defense, especially against the run, and wasn’t helped by a weak defensive line in front of him. Morrow is slated to hit the free-agent market, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bears bring him back in 2023. Whether that’s in a starting role or as depth remains to be seen, especially given the importance of the WILL linebacker in this defense. But Morrow definitely made a case for sticking around in some capacity.

Jack Sanborn: A

AP Photo/Stephen Brashear

Season stats: 64 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 1 fumble recovery (14 games, 6 starts)

Sanborn was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2022 season, and all it took was Roquan Smith being traded to the Ravens for Sanborn to get his shot. The undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin showed his potential during the preseason, where he quickly became a fan favorite, and that translated to the regular season in his six starts. Sanborn showcased his elite instincts and solid tackling that brought consistency to the front seven. He had 48 solo tackles in six starts and was on pace to lead the league (had he started all 17 games). Sanborn also earned a nod on Pro Football Focus’ All-Rookie Team. Unfortunately, Sanborn’s impressive rookie campaign was cut short by injury. But, on the bright side, the Bears look like they’ve found their starting middle linebacker moving forward.

Joe Thomas: C+

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Season stats: 61 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 QB hit, 2 pass breakups, 1 fumble recovery (15 games, 9 starts)

Thomas served as a key contributor for the Bears’ linebacking corp, where he saw nine starts in 2022. But Thomas is the perfect example of why you need solid depth at different positions. Thomas, who started the year on the practice squad, was more involved than many expected him to be. That had to do with Roquan Smith being traded and injuries, including Jack Sanborn landing on IR later in the season. But Thomas did have him moments, including a streak of 22 solo and 32 total tackles in a three-game span. Thomas, 31, is someone who you figure Chicago could consider bringing back as depth in 2023.

Matt Adams: C-

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Season stats: 26 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble (10 games, 3 starts)

Adams was brought to Chicago with a knowledge of Matt Eberflus’ defense, and he served as depth at linebacker. He had his best season since his rookie year with the Colts in 2018, but that was still in limited action. Comparing Adams to another reserve like Thomas, his production was down. Adams is set to hit free agency, and you have to wonder if the Bears bring him back on a one-year deal. Especially if guys like Morrow and Thomas are better set as depth.

INCOMPLETE: Sterling Weatherford, Elijah Lee, DeMarquis Gates, Terrell Lewis

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Looking at the linebackers that ended the 2022 season on the active roster, Weatherford, Lee, Gates and Lewis didn’t see enough action to garner evaluation. The Bears relied on their core of Morrow, Sanborn, Thomas and Adams (and Smith before he was traded) at linebacker.

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Story originally appeared on Bears Wire