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Urlacher's Future With Bears Remains Up In The Air

By Benjy Lipsman in News on Feb 22, 2013 3:20PM

Brian Urlacher models the new Bears jersey from Nike.
With NFL teams addressing the media ahead of the NFL's draft combine, many of the questions fired at Bears management focused on the fate of linebacker Brian Urlacher. The team's leader on defense for 13 seasons and future Hall of Famer is an unrestricted free agent. The NFL's free agency period opens March 12 and many want to know where Urlacher stands on the list of team's priorities.

While Urlacher's leadership abilities are unquestioned, his skills have diminished as he approaches 35 and he has spent much of the past few seasons sidelined with various injuries. The new regime of GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman has yet to commit to bringing back perhaps the team's most popular player and a respected presence in the locker room.

In his comments on Thursday, Marc Trestman noted only that the team was assessing all its players.

Emery said Urlacher when asked whether the team's star was being slighted by this evaluation process,

If people are feeling he is slighted, it certainly isn’t coming from me because I have great respect for Brian first as a player. Where this ends up, we’ll work through with Brian. That will be a private matter. When we come to a resolution, we’ll let you know. Just know he’ll never be slighted. I have too much respect for him.
I was here when he was drafted. I do have a connection that way. I was in those discussions when we took Brian Urlacher. I have tremendous respect for Brian Urlacher and he will never be slighted as a Bear, whether he’s here for an extended number of years or whether this is the end of his career as a player for the Bears. He will always be respected.

That certainty was not a resounding commitment to bringing Urlacher back for a 14th season. Nor was it shutting the door on his illustrious career in Chicago.

Whether Urlacher returns may have more to do with how other free agent chips fall. The team's top defensive priority is budding star lineman Henry Melton. Also a free agent, the Bears will likely be compelled to slap the "franchise tag" on him should they be unable to reach a long term contract agreement.

But the new Bears regime may be foolish to let Urlacher go. As Trestman tries to establish his rapport with his team, having a guy like Urlacher on his side could go a long way to win over his new roster.

As the Tribune's David Haugh pointed out, "For a new coach who initially could have trouble connecting with his most important audience — his team — cultivating Urlacher provides a natural bridge to credibility in the locker room. Nobody in there ever strains to hear what No. 54 has to say. Few teammates ever doubted him." That alone may be reason enough to bring back Urlacher.

Of course dollars and cents do come into play at some point. Last season, Urlacher earned over $7 million. Would Urlacher take the league minimum of less than a million to finish his career with the Bears? Not likely. But if the team is forced to use the franchise tag on Melton, that leaves only $2.7 million under the cap. The team could find creative ways to structure a deal that allows him to save face, such as a back loaded 3-year, $14 million one proposed by Haugh. Given that contracts are not guaranteed, the team wouldn't actually pay that amount.

At the same time, the Bears have to prepare for the inevitable life without Brian Urlacher. Even if he returns, it's only for another year or two at most. And as the team looked toward the future, they'll need to address the middle linebacker position. While management shot down any chances of moving last year's first round draft pick Shea McClellin back to his college position, the Bears have shown interest in Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, who they plan to meet with on Friday during the combine.