This is the eighth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free-agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
When Chicago Bears chairman George McCaskey, president Ted Phillips or new general manager Phil Emery speaks about the team’s situation at linebacker they’re usually working to pry off the hourglass always attached to the discussion.
“I’ve heard the rumblings that there’s a lot of age on our roster, defensively,” Emery said when asked specifically about Urlacher and the linebacker position. “I kind of look at it this way: it’s not a numerical number we’re looking at [when determining whether a player is getting too old to contribute]. It’s the way you’re making plays. Are you being a productive player? If it was just a miracle number, and the number of gray hairs, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Urlacher and Briggs combined in 2011 for 282 tackles, four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and 11 quarterback pressures in being named to their eighth and seventh Pro Bowls. Briggs eclipsed 100 tackles for the eighth consecutive season while Urlacher accomplished the feat for a franchise-record 11th time.
Are they slowing down? Maybe, but the duo continues to find ways to compensate for physical limitations by sharpening the mental sides of their games. Still, at some point, the Bears need to find the duo’s eventual replacements.
Emery has made it clear he’d prefer to replenish the talent pool through the draft. But it’s unlikely the Bears will use a high pick in April to draft a linebacker.
The new GM will also have to at some point address Briggs’ demands for a new contract.
THE CURRENT ROSTER
Brian Urlacher: Enters the final season of a five-year extension signed in 2008, and is set to receive $7.5 million in base salary ($9.7 million cap charge). Still one of the NFL’s best middle linebackers, Urlacher hasn’t discussed his contract status. But surely Urlacher would like to finish his career in Chicago and appears healthy -- and skilled -- enough to play at a high level for multiple years beyond 2012. Urlacher tied for third in interceptions (3) in 2011, and is one of just four players in NFL history to post more than 40 (41.5) career sacks and 20 (21) INTs. Urlacher sprained the MCL in his left knee in the season finale, but the injury won’t require surgery or a lengthy rehabilitation process that would put his availability for 2012 in question.
Lance Briggs: Was vocal prior to the 2011 season about the desire to receive a raise, or at least have the team flip the base salaries for 2012 ($3.75 million) and 2013 ($6.25 million). Given that two years remain on the deal, Briggs doesn’t appear to have much leverage in this situation and the Bears won’t be inclined to succumb to the linebacker’s demands. Briggs has said that he’d like to be traded if the Bears can’t accommodate his request. But he’s made such statements in the past, and ultimately returned to the team. Before the start of last season, there were rumblings about a potential trade between the Bears and New York Giants involving Briggs and defensive end Osi Umenyiora. But former general manager Jerry Angelo told ESPNChicago.com at the time that while logical given the needs of both teams, those rumors were untrue.
Nick Roach: Signed a two-year contract worth approximately $4 million prior to training camp in 2011, and will receive $1.715 million in base salary for 2012. Roach started 15 games at strong side linebacker last season, and contributed 61 tackles to go with three pass breakups. Interestingly, there were rumblings the Bears were considering bringing in players such as Pisa Tinoisamoa and Lofa Tatupu last season to man Roach’s spot. Tinoisamoa’s health remains an issue, but there’s a chance the team could still be eyeing Tatupu, who reportedly visited the New Orleans Saints on Monday.
Dom DeCicco: An undrafted free agent, DeCicco played in all 16 games as a rookie and tied for second on the team in special teams tackles (17). He is No. 2 on the depth chart at middle linebacker behind Urlacher. It’s still too early to tell whether DeCicco might be Urlacher’s future replacement at the position. He needs a full offseason to improve strength while learning all the nuances of the team’s system.
J.T. Thomas: A sixth-round pick in 2011, Thomas received essentially a red-shirt season when the Bears placed him on the injured reserve on Sept. 3 because of a back injury. Sources said the team was somewhat unpleased with Thomas’ physicality, and wanted him to improve in that area. Thomas further muddled his situation early Monday when he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Patrick Trahan: Signed to the active roster on Nov. 29, Trahan played five games and contributed five tackles on special teams. Prior to joining the Bears for training camp, Trahan spent 2010 on the practice squad of the Tennessee Titans. Trahan possesses the traits of the run-and-hit linebacker the Bears covet, but needs more seasoning to become a legitimate threat to crack the lineup.
Jabara Williams: Claimed off waivers from the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 17, and played five games for the Bears, making five stops on special teams. The Rams drafted Williams in the seventh round, and he played two games with the club before his release. Also fits the run-and-hit mold.
Bears free agents: None
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
OLB Leroy Hill, Seattle Seahawks, unrestricted
WHY HAWTHORNE FITS
All three of the potential candidates listed could play SAM linebacker if the team thinks it needs an upgrade at Roach’s spot. But of the three, Hawthorne possesses the most versatility and upside. A four-year veteran, Hawthorne notched 115 tackles in 2011 to go with two sacks and three interceptions, one of which he returned 77 yards for a touchdown (with a Grade II MCL sprain). Bears coach Lovie Smith, a native of East Texas, is no doubt familiar with Hawthorne, who grew up with former safety Danieal Manning in Corsicana, Texas.
Nicknamed “Heater”, Hawthorne has posted more than 100 tackles and led the team in tackles each of the last three seasons. What’s more is he’s played all three linebacker spots. Coincidentally, Hawthorne’s first NFL start came against the Bears in 2009, and he posted 16 tackles in that contest.
Normally a middle linebacker, Hawthorne has also led the Seahawks in tackles from the weak side. In Chicago, Hawthorne, 26, could potentially play Roach’s spot where he’d be an upgrade against the run and in pass coverage, and simultaneously serve as the heir apparent to either Briggs on the weak side or Urlacher in the middle.
Under the last personnel regime, the Bears expressed some interest in Hawthorne. But it’s unclear now how Emery views him.