The loss of experience, savvy, leadership and all the rest with the exit of Brian Urlacher is something the collective locker room and roster will have to deal with. But there is one specific no-Urlacher problem that may eclipse all the others.
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The Bears filled part of the Urlacher void on Friday when they secured former Denver linebacker D.J. Williams with a one-year contract, as first reported by longtime beat colleague Dan Pompei at the Chicago Tribune. “Secured” may not necessarily be the word for Williams, who missed nine games last season because of two suspensions, one for six games from the league for a violation of its substance policies, and three after a driving-while-impaired conviction.
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Williams, 31 in July, was the 17th-overall pick of the 2004 draft by the Broncos and was due a $6 million salary for 2013, which was not close to happening with his recent history. The Broncos released Williams on Mar. 11 despite his 90-plus tackles in each of the five seasons before 2012.
Doing Urlacher a favor?
One irony with the abrupt cessation of contract communications with Urlacher this week is that the Bears may actually have been doing their longtime linebacker a favor. Had they left the offer on the table, and with it the prospect of his return for 2013, no other team was going to offer anything close to the $3.5 million that was the final offer of the Urlacher camp.
More than one team expected Urlacher to return to the Bears. That means holding off on any play for him. Now that’s an open field.
A second irony with Urlacher was that despite of advanced years in the NFL was that for all of his supposed lost speed, he was still grading well in pass coverage. Pro Football Focus’ grading system pegged him as significantly better in that area than in run defense, the traditional strength of the traditional middle linebacker, which Urlacher wasn’t.
A luxury over the past 10 years is that the Bears never had to take their two best linebackers – Urlacher, Lance Briggs – off the field. Briggs developed to the point where Lovie Smith made it clear that Briggs in coverage was better than fourth cornerbacks and safeties.
Briggs is still in place, although the “old Briggs” stories should start gaining speed shortly. But Urlacher still had the ability and size to perform reasonably in his drops as part of the nickel unit.
Little missed time
Urlacher was off the field for just two series in two games in 2010. He was off the field for just one snap over the first 14 games of 2011. Last season he was eased back early in the year and was taken out late in the blowouts at Jacksonville and Tennessee but was an every down fixture before his hamstring injury.
Now the Bears have neither a quality nickel defensive back under contract nor Urlacher, whose level of play was still high in the more critical area of defense. In the NFC North, Green Bay’s plays were 58 percent pass. The Lions were 66 percent pass plays. Even the Minnesota Petersons’ play calls were 51 percent pass.
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The Bears’ schedule this year also includes the New Orleans Saints (65 percent pass), Dallas Cowboys (66 percent) and the New York Giants, whose offense last year was 58 percent pass plays and who won two Super Bowls in five years with Eli Manning the games’ MVP.
One reason the loss of Nick Roach to the Raiders has big ripple effect was that he was in fact emerging as a viable every down middle linebacker. Roach was off the field for just one snap over the final four games – exactly the same number Urlacher was off over his final four games last season.
The Bears, who lost D.J. Moore to Carolina, have interest in re-signing third-cornerback Kelvin Hayden. They were rebuffed in an attempt to sign Captain Munnerlyn away from the Panthers.