Brian Urlacher’s value as a leader could be worth Bears keeping him
BY SEAN JENSEN firstname.lastname@example.org February 24, 2013 9:59PM
Chicago Bears v New Orleans Saints
INDIANAPOLIS — Bears coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery have been reluctant to provide much insight about Brian Urlacher’s future.
During the NFL Combine, two general managers, four personnel executives and two coaches were asked to provide some insight on the 34-year-old perennial Pro Bowl middle linebacker.
The first question was, ‘‘Does Urlacher have anything left?’’
Only one of the sources questioned definitively said no. One said Urlacher could be ‘‘very good’’ on first and second down. And two others had similar takes, describing Urlacher as a ‘‘marginal’’ or ‘‘short-term’’ starter.
The other questions centered on where he might end up playing in 2013 and what the concerns are about him as a player on the back side of his brilliant career. Seven of those interviewed projected he’d remain with the Bears. One wondered about his durability and his declining range.
Four thought he was best suited to play on first and second down, then step off the field on third-and-long, where his deteriorating speed could be exploited most. An NFC personnel director thought he could be aided by changing his gap responsibilities.
‘‘I think he’s got another year left,’’ one general manager said. ‘‘And he still has value as a leader.’’
Especially to the Bears.
Urlacher has said he doesn’t want to play for any other team, and he seems to have accepted he won’t get anything close to the $8 million he made in 2012. But the sentiment this weekend is that he will have other options.
There are a few reasons. He’s savvy, an excellent leader and has a knack for generating plays. In 12 games last season, he finished with 68 tackles, seven passes defended, one interception and two forced fumbles.
In addition, the Bears don’t have too many appealing options. The most attractive unrestricted free agent is Dannell Ellerbe, who capably replaced Ray Lewis for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. After quarterback Joe Flacco, Ellerbe, 27, is considered the Ravens’ second-most important offseason priority.
If the Ravens can’t re-sign him, the Bears have at least $12 million in salary-cap space — but they may not have the luxury to focus more resources on the defense, especially with defensive tackle Henry Melton expected to eat up a significant chunk via a new contract or the franchise tag.
If they can’t get a young, emerging player such as Ellerbe, the Bears would have to turn to riskier alternatives such as Rey Maualuga or Phillip Wheeler.
The ideal scenario might be to re-sign Urlacher and draft his replacement, who can spend the 2013 season learning under him. If that young player proved to be a quick study, then perhaps he could play in nickel situations. Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o and LSU’s Kevin Minter very well might be available when the Bears select with the 20th pick. Otherwise, Alabama’s Nico Johnson or Oregon’s Kiko Alonso could be appealing in later rounds.
New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker isn’t overhauling the scheme, and the Bears don’t really have the luxury of time. There are grand expectations for the 2013 team after a 10-win season.
Lewis was a shell of his former self for the Ravens last season, struggling in coverage and not making as many plays. But they seemed to genuinely want him on the field and around the locker room, and the Bears — the players, at least — appear to feel the same way about Urlacher.
For Emery and Trestman, there’s risk. What if Urlacher heads somewhere else and shines and the Bears struggle at the position? Not only would they have chased away the most popular player of his generation, but they’d be counting on someone else to fill some tremendously large shoes in terms of performance and leadership.
At the moment, the Bears aren’t tipping their hand, but Emery insisted Urlacher won’t be ‘‘slighted.’’
‘‘I have too much respect for him,’’ Emery said.