When you think of current, great defensive players, there are a number of players that come to mind. Most of the time, you're going to think of athletes such as New York's Darrelle Revis, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, Minnesota's Jared Allen, Baltimore's Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Green Bay's Charles Woodson and Chicago's Brian Urlacher.
Originally a safety at New Mexico, the Bears decided to take a chance on him with the ninth-overall selection in the 2000 NFL Draft. Urlacher was undoubtedly one of the best defensive players in the country, as he named a Consensus All-American during his senior season. But coming from such a small school had "risk" written all over it. Needless to say, the gamble paid off and in a big way.
Since arriving in the NFL, Urlacher has been one of the most feared, scariest and consistent linebackers of the 21st century. For many years, No. 54 has been the leader of Chicago's vaulted Cover 2 defense. Urlacher's stellar play has led to eight Pro Bowl selections, five All-Pro selections, a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and a Defensive Player of the Year Award (2005).
Urlacher is also perhaps known for his unbelievable game against the Arizona Cardinals during the 2006 season. Some of y'all may recognize it as the famous "They Are Who We Thought They Were" game. Urlacher was able to help his team overcome a 20-point deficit in the second half to win the game, 24-23. The Bears failed to register a single offensive touchdown, as quarterback Rex Grossman completed just 14 of 37 passes for 144 yards, along with four interceptions and two lost fumbles. Urlacher was stunningly brilliant, as he recorded 25 total tackles, along with a forced fumble that was recovered by Chicago and returned for a touchdown.
The linebacker is, without a doubt, one of the best players in Chicago's storied history, and it is very likely that he will have a bust in Canton once he decides to call it a career. But the question remains: When will Urlacher call it quits?
After all, Urlacher is 34 years old. And as we all know, that's considered old for a player in the NFL, not just at linebacker. He's also entering the final year of his contract and will become a free agent once the 2012 season concludes. But the linebacker seems to be one of those players that won't go elsewhere. Urlacher is one of those players that seems he will do anything in his power to remain with his faithful Bears. There is no doubt in my mind that he will spend the rest of his career with the only team he has ever known, even though I said the same thing about Peyton Manning and the Colts. We all know how that turned out.
Like the Ravens' Ray Lewis, Urlacher is the leader of his respective defense. He has done so much for the Bears organization over the years that it seems right for him to remain in blue and orange. But it's unclear as to how much time he's got left, at least at the competitive level. As stated earlier, Urlacher is 34 years old, which means his best playing days are behind him. As seen in the past, players— especially linebackers—seem to substantially fall off at that point in their careers.
According to ESPN's John Clayton, there were only 14 players who were 35 or older that started 10 games or more last season. Additionally, four of those players have either subsequently retired or haven't been signed this offseason and remain free agents. Also, there are currently only 18 position players signed to contracts, that are 35 or older, for the upcoming 2012 season.
How much longer does Brian Urlacher have left?
But if Urlacher were to enter free agency after this upcoming season, I guarantee that there would be a team to take a chance on him. After all, who wouldn't? Urlacher has been one of the best linebackers of recent memory, and there's a very good possibility that a 35-year-old Urlacher is better than half of the 25-year-old linebackers that currently hold roster spots.
Despite increasing in age, Urlacher still brings so much to the table: leadership, competitiveness, athleticism, a high football I.Q., a great locker-room presence and not to mention, fans in the stands. Urlacher is also an outstanding spokesman for the game of football, as he is an athlete that kids always want to emulate.
Urlacher is an amazing player, but unfortunately, he has had to battle numerous injuries throughout his professional career that could hurt his chances of playing longer than he had hoped.
Urlacher suffered his most recent injury in the Bears' season finale against Minnesota last season. Doctors initially thought he tore the MCL and PCL in his knee, but it doesn't appear to be that serious. Urlacher stated that both ligaments were "damaged," though. However, he has said that he expects to fully participate in the team's offseason program and should hopefully be near 100 percent for the start of the Bears' regular season.
There's no doubt that the Bears will need him to return to the field. The Bears have had a solid offseason in which they have given the offense some much-needed help, so this is as good of a chance as they'll ever have to supplant the Packers as the NFC North Champions. Urlacher is the team's leader on the defensive side of the ball, and they will be missing a hefty piece to their puzzle if he misses some games.
In the middle of the 2007 season, Urlacher announced that he had been suffering from an arthritic back, but it wasn't "serious," according to the linebacker. Following the season's conclusion, Urlacher was forced to undergo neck surgery to treat his back. Fortunately for the Bears, Urlacher didn't miss any games that season.
In Chicago's 2009 season opener against Green Bay, Urlacher dislocated his wrist in the first quarter of the Bears' 21-15 loss. Urlacher was forced to immediately undergo surgery for his dislocated wrist, which caused him to miss the remainder of the season. According to doctors, Urlacher had severely damaged a bone in his wrist that was adjacent to a major nerve. The Washington native was forced to wear a cast on his wrist for 12 weeks and spend a month in therapy.
The Bears, meanwhile, undoubtedly missed their marquee linebacker and defensive leader. The team ultimately struggled after the loss of Urlacher, as they finished the season 7-9. Chicago missed the playoffs for the third straight season, even though they had a stable quarterback in Jay Cutler for the first time since the Jim McMahon era.
After recovering from the injury, Urlacher announced that he felt "more powerful" than he did prior to the surgery. He turned out to not even miss a beat, as Urlacher registered 125 total tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Urlacher's 11th season in the NFL turned out to be one of the best of his career, even though he had practically sat out the prior season with a major injury.
In 2004, Urlacher suffered multiple injuries and was forced to miss seven games in the process. The mediocre Bears failed to register a single win in any of those seven games, as they finished 5-11 in Lovie Smith's first year as the team's head coach. Despite playing in only nine games, Urlacher accumulated 71 total tackles and 5.5 sacks.
Despite playing in 170 of a possible 192 regular season games over his career, Urlacher has registered 1,294 total tackles, including a Bears' record 153 in 2002. He has also accumulated 41.5 sacks, 21 interceptions, nine forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries and 84 passes defensed. As evidenced by his stellar statistics, Urlacher is a monster—and did I mention he is currently dating Jenny McCarthy? Lucky man. Such a lucky man.
Anyway, back to the original topic, there is no doubt that Urlacher isn't done. I believe the linebacker has a maximum of three years of competitiveness left at the NFL's highest level. I think it's entirely plausible for No. 54 to play until he's 40 years old, although his playing abilities would have severely diminished by then.
However, he could more than likely still play as a backup, even though his best days would be behind him. There's just no way Urlacher, no matter how good he currently is, would be able to start five or more years from now. No linebacker would be able to do that in today's age and times.
This offseason, the Bears used their first-round draft selection on Boise State outside linebacker Shea McClellin, who will likely line up alongside Urlacher and Lance Briggs once the regular season begins. McClellin has drawn comparisons to his current teammate Urlacher, and the Bears are certainly hoping that's the case. The former Boise State player needs to take advantage of his opportunity, as he will be learning from one of the best linebackers of the 2000s. If he can develop into just half as good as Urlacher, the Bears will be set.
Urlacher should also consider going into coaching once he retires, which could be relatively soon. Many players like to go into coaching after their careers end, and I don't think Urlacher will be any exception. With such a phenomenal football I.Q. and a love for the game, Urlacher would make a great defensive coordinator or linebackers coach. If he ultimately decided to go that route, it could conceivably happen within the next few years. If injuries continue to sideline him and toy with his career, Urlacher could call it quits within the next few seasons.
But when he decides to walk away from the game, which could be in the next three or four seasons, it will not be a good day for Bears fans. They will be forced to say goodbye to the team's leader for the last decade, and not to mention, it will also be exceptionally hard for the front office to replace him. Luckily for Bears fans, and football fans in general, we will get to see him again when he receives a bust in Canton. We just don't know when that's going to be yet.