Every returning member of the Bears defense has had four weeks to come to terms with moving on without Brian Urlacher. Phil Emery gave the longtime captain a one-year, take-it-or-leave-it, $1.5 million offer to return. The 13-year veteran “left” it and remains a free agent. Tuesday’s start of the Bears’ voluntary minicamp was the first time the general manager fielded questions since the decision, and despite the strong connection between the player and the franchise, he has no regrets how the situation was handled.
“Absolutely not. It was a very straight-forward process," Emery said. "We had a very honest and open exchange between Brian’s representatives. There was no lack of clarity. No surprises. Brian’s been a great player, a Hall of Fame player. He’s done great things for the Chicago Bears. We’ve committed more resources to Brian than any Bear in the history of the organization. We were willing to commit more. In the end, we just couldn’t agree to what that amount was, and it’s no more than that.”
The businesslike decision may have left members of that longtime, loyal, veteran group a bit disillusioned. But Emery stresses a transition has already begun in finding new leadership on that side of the ball.
“Guys like Lance Briggs have stepped up and, in his very own way, has said some good things. Tim Jennings. That’s all been very positive from the players," Emery said. "At the end of the day, all NFL players know there’s a ceiling to how long they can play, and they grab every day. I know these guys want to win championships.
“Obviously, they have some sadness and I’d be shocked if they didn’t,” Emery continued. "I’d be concerned if they didn’t. Brian was a great player, a great person. I see that as a normal part of it. I think they’ve done a great job of re-gathering themselves and moving forward.”
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“Lance has definitely picked up the role,” defensive end Corey Wootton said. “He’s being the leader, calling the plays, everyone’s looking towards him when we’re out there. Same with Tim. Both guys had great years last year and Tim really stepped up for us.”
Briggs declined to speak with the media after Tuesday’s workout, but promised to Wednesday. Another potential veteran who’ll be looked upon to lead is Julius Peppers.
“It was different,” Peppers said of not seeing the familiar No. 54 taking part at the Walter Payton Center. “But we have to keep moving forward with the guys that are here. We definitely miss him but we have to adjust to the guys that are out here working. It’s a group effort. There’s a lot of leaders on this team, willing to step up and take on that role.”
Part of the transition process also includes new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who plans on keeping the same 4-3 principles most of the players became familiar with under Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli.
“It’s the first day. We’re just back, getting’ into it,” said Peppers when asked about similarities and differences. "We did a lot in the weight room and with conditioning, so everybody looks to be in good shape. But as far as the scheme –- it’s still the first day. It’s gonna take a little time to see what’s going on.”
But listening to Wootton, it didn’t sound like his head was spinning too much.
“The good thing is we’re keeping the defense pretty much the same, but there’s some different personnel in the linebacking corps," he said. "It’s just getting used to them and getting adjusted.”
One part that carried over on the first day was the attacking, the flying around and the chirping by the “D.”
“Definitely. It’s great,” said Wootton. “They’re really stressing running to the ball, getting it out, scoop-and-score. It was great to see the energy and see how everyone was moving around today.”
Adding “Z” to the “D”
Urlacher may not have wanted to sign the one-year deal that was offered, but former Buffalo Grove High School star Tom Zbikowski was more than happy to jump at one by the team he grew up rooting for, following a standout career at Notre Dame, four seasons in Baltimore and last season in Indianapolis.
“It hasn’t been a dream come true yet because I still have to make the 53, he said. "Once that happens and I’m able to run out there on opening day, it’ll be much more satisfying. As of now, I just gotta keep working, keep pressing on, keep my head down and get better every single day.”
Safety figures to be a position of strength for this team, but it’s been an injury-prone position for several seasons. Zbikowski’s experience and special teams pedigree would figure to make his roster spot pretty secure. That’s even if Major Wright, Chris Conte, Craig Steltz and Brandon Hardin all find ways to stay healthy.
“There’s a lot of good players out here," Zbikowski said. "That’s why year in and year out the Bears always have a good team, whether they’re in the playoffs or not, especially on the defensive side and special teams. I’m just trying to add more talent and wherever I fit in, I fit in.”
He’s kept his humility and work ethic to the point he wants to make sure he does everything he can to be in that Bears uniform come September. How?
“Trying to lock myself in my room and staying away from everyone the next couple of weeks,” he said.
Izzy, or Isn’t He?
Emery says Israel Idonije, who remains unsigned in free agency, remains one from a handful of veteran defensive linemen he’d still like to add to his roster. That would likely have to be at or near the league minimum, after Idonije had a $2.5 million salary last season.