“Numbers game” squeezing Bears LB scenarios
The 2012 season began with a major question over-hanging the defense -- the state of Brian Urlacher’s surgically repaired left knee. It ended with an even bigger one -- the state of Brian Urlacher’s game in general.
Urlacher, Nick Roach and Geno Hayes all have contracts expiring at the end of the league year. Those are three of the top four linebackers on last season’s roster, which creates a question of numbers as well as ability levels.
Urlacher began training camp bothered by his injured knee and was still visibly off his usual game at the outset of the regular season. The instincts, recognitions, command of the defense and the rest of the package were largely in place, all except the speed.
The preseason was spent exploring a couple of alternatives in the event that Urlacher’s knee did not sufficiently respond: Roach to the middle and starting Hayes at the SLB spot, or leave Roach in place and start Blake Costanzo. The issue was rendered moot when Urlacher was able to start the season.
If Urlacher was not up to his form of the past decade, the results were nonetheless encouraging. GM Phil Emery noted that by the time Urlacher went out for the year with the hamstring injury vs. Seattle, he was at or approaching the level sought by the organization – the closest thing the organization gave to an expression of wanting Urlacher back.
[MORE: Bears DL free agency preview]
Urlacher missed the last four games entirely but still finished the season fourth in tackles (88) and second only to Lance Briggs (nine) in tackles for loss (seven).
Only safety Major Wright (1,045) played more snaps last season than Briggs (1,026), who graded out with positives in every area by Pro Football Focus. Briggs was credited with a team-high 46 “stops,” the designation applied to solo tackles resulting in a failed offensive play.
Roach played 711 snaps in all 16 games for the third time in the last four years and demonstrated the ability to play both his customary strong-side spot as well as the middle.
[MORE: Bears OL free agency preview]
Hayes started three of the last four games in Roach’s role when the latter stepped in at MLB after Urlacher’s hamstring injury. He lacks the size of Roach, but coaches were satisfied with his ability to play with leverage and line up over tight ends and he delivered eight tackles in the loss at Minnesota.
Costanzo made his first start at Green Bay when Hayes was down with a knee injury. He responded with five tackles, one for a loss, showing some potential as a position player rather than solely special teams.
Needs assessment: 1…(5)…10 (highest)
With Briggs the only starting linebacker under contract and lacking front-line depth in the pipeline, a position group with two Pro Bowl members as recently as 2011 is in need of re-stocking, if only because of low head count.
Opinions on Urlacher’s skill levels differ, but he was an above-average linebacker through a season that was outstanding overall for the defense. The critical assessment is how new coordinator Mel Tucker considers Urlacher in a stated plan to retain the defense installed by Lovie Smith. No member of the defense represents as important a continuity element as Urlacher, subject to market (price) considerations.
The Urlacher decision has been among the most speculated-upon around this franchise in the last decade and the Bears have done little to tip their intentions, which has been read both ways.
The Bears began talks with Roach on a new contract late last month, an indication of Roach’s value to the organization. What was not clear was whether he was being courted as a middle or outside linebacker, but re-signing him was established as a priority.
A significant unknown with the entire position group is whether or not Shea McClellin will join it on an expanded basis in 2013. The new coaching staff did not rule out more playing time for McClellin at linebacker, although his value as a pass rusher points toward work on the strong side in a role similar to that of Rosevelt Colvin a decade ago that resulted in 21 sacks for Colvin over two seasons.
Best free-agent options (based on value, fit)
Nick Roach, Bears: Familiar with the system, familiar with teammates, a locker-room plus, Roach is a solid starter with versatility to bring quality to two positions.
Brad Jones, Green Bay: Lesser known than several other Packers ‘backers but has been productive and adds a rush component besides subtracting from the Packers.
Geno Hayes, Bears: Another situation where keeping your own is the best strategy. Hayes struggled when he arrived from Tampa Bay in training camp but has speed and a sense of the system.
Brian Urlacher, Bears: Hayes and Roach represent the pipeline and who better to mentor as well as contribute?