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Brian Urlacher worthy of first-ballot Hall of Fame selection

Linebacker Brian Urlacher was the pillar of the Bears' defense for 13 seasons. Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire

Former Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher will face stiff competition to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2018, but Urlacher’s illustrious 13-year career is worthy of enshrinement in Canton.

Aside from Baltimore’s Ray Lewis -- another first-ballot candidate -- Urlacher’s credentials compare favorably to other contenders.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee can let in a maximum of five modern-day candidates each year. The Hall of Fame requires 80 percent approval for enshrinement.

Along with Urlacher and Lewis, Randy Moss also will be on the ballot next year. And it stands to reason that Terrell Owens eventually will get it. So, the field will be competitive in 2018.

But during my 13 years on the Bears beat, no one meant more to the franchise than Urlacher.

The ninth overall pick in 2000, Urlacher was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording 123 tackles and eight sacks. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and an eight-time Pro Bowler who led Chicago to four division titles and a berth in Super Bowl XLI.

Of course, Urlacher -- as he’s noted throughout the years -- had the good fortune to play alongside great players such as Olin Kreutz, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Matt Forte, Devin Hester and many others. But Urlacher was the undisputed face of the organization.

Urlacher was the main reason Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 defense was so successful in Chicago. A freakish athlete, Urlacher’s ability -- not just to make plays sideline-to-sideline, but also to drop back in coverage and take away to middle third of the field -- made him invaluable. It’s no coincidence that with Urlacher the Bears finished top-five in points allowed four times (2005, 2006, 2010 and 2012).

However, Urlacher was not tied to one particular scheme. He thrived in Greg Blache’s version of the 4-3 for four years prior to Smith’s arrival. Had Urlacher been allowed to stay in that system -- one that allowed the middle linebacker to blitz more -- his numbers would have been greater. But Urlacher was the ultimate team player who played his role in the Cover 2 to perfection.

Urlacher retired with 41.5 sacks and 22 interceptions. He recorded 100-plus tackles in nine of 13 seasons in the NFL. When Urlacher fell short of 100 tackles, it was solely due to injuries -- back, wrist, calf, etc.

Urlacher’s performance in Chicago’s thrilling come-from-behind Monday night victory in Arizona in 2006 may be the single most dominant game by a defensive player I have ever witnessed in all my years watching football. That night in the desert, Urlacher annihilated the Cardinals, recording 20-plus tackles, picking up Arizona players and driving them backward on many of the sticks.

To me, the greatest example of Urlacher’s toughness occurred in his final season of 2012. Urlacher missed the entire offseason because of a knee injury that forced him to undergo arthroscopic surgery a month before the start of the regular season. Yet, somehow, Urlacher started in Week 1 and steadily improved as the year wore on before he suffered an unfortunate hamstring injury in Week 12 chasing Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Still, Urlacher’s resiliency to fight through injuries, even as his career was winding down, spoke volumes about his football character.

The Hall of Fame selection process is supposed to be solely about the players’ on-field accomplishments; that point was again hammered home this year by voters who discussed Owens' exclusion. But I would be remiss if I failed to mention Urlacher’s popularity inside the locker room. Urlacher didn’t use the media to deliver messages. He was a true leader, not some phony locker room politician. Urlacher was a person almost everyone in the building looked up to and respected. It’s no surprise the Bears’ locker room leadership fell off a cliff when Urlacher was forced out after 2012. The Bears have never filled that void.

No one is perfect. Urlacher probably has some regrets -- the most obvious being the Bears’ inability to win a Super Bowl.

But Urlacher carried himself with dignity and class on the field and at Halas Hall for 13 years.

He is a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word.