Dick Butkus. Mike Singletary. Brian Urlacher.
The Chicago Bears earned their moniker “Monsters of the Midway” with all-time great middle linebackers. Brian Urlacher is the latest installment of toughness and skill to captain the Bears defense.
Unfortunately, the next chapter for the Bears at middle linebacker will have to begin soon. Urlacher will be 35 next season.
How soon though?
According to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune, Urlacher proposed a two-year deal worth about $5 million each season. That deal would keep Urlacher in a Bears uniform until his retirement.
The suggested contract is very reasonable. As McClure mentioned, the money is similar to what Ray Lewis and London Fletcher received. All three are grizzled veterans who have had elite careers at linebacker. ESPN reported that Lewis’ seven-year deal in 2009 earned him $4.95 million in 2012. Fletcher’s contract was worth $10.75 million over two years, according to NFL.com.
While the contract is reasonable, the Bears’ limited cap space has been one of the prominent storylines this offseason. Henry Melton’s franchise tag left the Bears with about $3.5 million of space without restructuring any contracts.
Even if the Bears’ only offseason activity is to bring back Urlacher and Melton and add players through the draft, it would be a success. The Bears ranked third in the NFL in points allowed per game in 2012, and only minor adjustments are needed to build on a 10-6 season.
Keeping Urlacher at middle linebacker is vital.
While some teams have had success drafting middle linebackers that can start immediately (e.g. the Seahawks picked both Lofa Tatupu and Bobby Wagner in the second round), the NFL draft is never a guarantee. Keeping Urlacher is the smartest decision for a Super Bowl contender.
Brian Urlacher is not necessarily a guarantee either, however. He missed almost the entire 2009 season and was out the last four games of 2012. Injuries are a concern with age, and Urlacher has had problems with his back, wrist, knee and hamstring.
On the other hand, Urlacher has played 16 games in 10 out of 13 seasons. He recorded over 100 total tackles in 2010 and 2011 without sustaining a serious injury until the middle of Week 17 in 2011.
If Urlacher is signed to a two-year deal, there is no reason to expect injuries to derail the end of his career. While he is more susceptible to injury now, he doesn’t have a chronic issue that has bothered him.
Even if Urlacher is completely healthy, there are questions about his production.
It is clear that Urlacher has lost a step since his early career. He looked slow early on in 2012. The Cover 2 demands a fast and agile linebacker, which has always been a strength for the converted safety.
Urlacher proved later in the season that he still has plenty left in the tank. His interception return in Week 9 showcased his speed, and Bears fans should feel confident that he can still play at a high level.
While the interception showed Urlacher can still move, it belied an even more important trait: instincts. Urlacher is a cerebral linebacker. His years of experience are irreplaceable, both on the field and in the locker room.
London Fletcher, 37, has recorded 100 tackles every season since his 34th birthday. Ray Lewis, also 37, suffered several injuries the past two years, but still had an obvious impact on the Ravens and their Super Bowl run. The Bears should lock up Urlacher and expect similar production. 100 tackles, a few fumbles forced or recovered and quality defense in the passing game is a realistic expectation.
For only $5 million a year, it should be an obvious choice to sign Urlacher. Seeing an all-time great end his career with a Super Bowl win would be a perfect end.
An imperfect ending would be Urlacher closing out his career in another city. There's still something to be said for loyalty and history in today's NFL.
The Monsters of the Midway should know plenty about that.