Linebacker. A position synonymous with the Chicago Bears. Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Otis Wilson were all time greats at their position. And now we have Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher carrying on the tradition of great Bears linebackers. But we need to look ahead. Briggs and Urlacher are heading towards the twilight of their careers now.
Who do they Bears have to take up the mantle and be the next great linebacker at Soldier Field?
Well, the short answer is no one. Perhaps more than any other position, the Bears find themselves painfully lacking depth at LB.
We saw what an impact it had on the team when Urlacher was out for the entire 2009 injury with a wrist injury. At 33 years of age, Urlacher is a 12 year veteran of the league, playing all those years in Chicago. He is a fan favorite, and a strong team leader. But he's no spring chicken. How many good years does he have left in the tank? There is no doubting the abilities of the multi time pro bowler. He is still explosive, can still cover sideline to sideline and always seems to be near the ball. His numbers last year were slightly down on the previous, but most seasons he still registers 100 tackles or more.
When recently speaking about his contract, Urlacher said:
"I've got one year left on my deal. Next year (2012) is my last year, and I haven't [talked to the team about a restructure or extension], no. I'm not worried about me," he said. "I know there's a lot of guys they've got to take care of right now. I'm sure if I play well enough and stay healthy that'll all get taken care of. I don't want to go anywhere else. I want to be here."
Urlacher is currently recovering from a knee injury, but it should be fully healed once the Bears begin off season training.
Which brings us onto Urlacher's partner in crime. Lance Briggs has always seemed to be a little in his partner's shadow. There is no doubt that Briggs would be considered the best LB on a lot of NFL teams, but achieving that status in Chicago has been difficult. Briggs is two years younger than Urlacher, and has also been with the Bears since being drafted nine years ago.
He has excellent strength and athleticism, and has all the skills needed to regularly make big plays.
Briggs, much like Matt Forte, was the talk of contract negotiations last season. His agent Drew Rosenhaus was looking to get Briggs traded at one point. His is signed with the Bears through the 2013 season, but like a lot of players, he is looking to get his deal 're-structured'. Basically, he wants more money. That said, none of this affected Briggs' production last year and he turned in another good season, and looks to do the same this year.
There is no doubting that Chicago have two of the best linebackers in the league. But who else do they have ready to fill the gap when Urlacher and Briggs inevitably move on?
I must make a special mention here of former Bears linebacker Brian Iwuh who the Bears released last year. I was a big fan of Iwuh, and I just want that to be widely known. OK?
I like what Nick Roach brings to the table. While he may be a little on the small size, he makes up for this with good instincts and athletic ability.
The other three players mentioned are wildly inexperienced, and have had limited playing time. I have been surprised that the Bears have not tried to get more of a veteran LB through free agency, and there hasn't been much talk of them picking one up in the early rounds of the draft.
There are some decent linebackers in this year's draft. One name that springs to mind is Courtney Upshaw out of Alabama. If the Bears were to pick a LB with their first choice (which seems unlikely), there is a chance that Upshaw would be available. He has good size and strength and can get to the quarterback. His team mate Dont'a Hightower is projected to still be on the board towards the middle or end of the first round and would also be a good pick. Nebraska's Lavonte David must also get a quick mention here as well.
But the general consensus seems to be that the Bears will go with a wide receiver or an offensive lineman with their first round pick at least. I concede that the line needs addressing more than any other position, but if the Bears don't start to look at developing players at the linebacker position, this could soon be the weak link in a traditionally strong defensive football team.