Brian Urlacher (102 TCK, 8 TFL, 7 PD, 3 INT, 2 FR, 1 TD)
Urlacher once again had an outstanding season. He was second on the team in tackles, tackles for loss and interceptions, and led the club in forced fumbles. He was highly effective in coverage, knocking down seven passes to go along with his three picks, and still showed his signature speed chasing down runners from sideline to sideline. He didn't perform well as a blitzer this year, failing to pick up a sack, after racking up 4.0 sacks last season. Otherwise, it was another great campaign. He was selected to his eighth Pro Bowl this year but will not play due to a knee injury suffered in the season finale.
Lance Briggs (105 TCK, 10 TFL, 4 PD, 1 INT, 2 FF)
Briggs was also voted to the Pro Bowl this year after another stellar campaign. He led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles. Against the run, Briggs was an absolute beast and had one of his best seasons as a run stopper. He held his own in coverage yet, like Urlacher, failed to pick up a sack. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Briggs had the 11th-best season of any 4-3 outside linebacker. He grumbled before the season about a pay raise but clearly did not let it affect his play on the field.
Nick Roach (38 TCK, 6 TFL, 4 PD)
Roach comes off the field in nickel situations, so his numbers don't stack up to his two Pro Bowl teammates. According to PFF, Roach played roughly half the snaps of both Urlacher and Briggs. He struggled early in the year, especially in coverage. Yet he did improve as a pass defender as the season progressed and was solid against the run for most of the year. If Roach needs to improve on anything, it's his patience, as he too often runs himself out of plays by being overly aggressive. For his first full season as a starter, though, the 26-year-old could have done a lot worse.
LBs Brian Urlacher & Lance Briggs
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
Brian Iwuh saw limited action as the team's fourth LB before being placed on IR in late November. The remaining linebackers on the team combined to play just four total snaps. So based on the production of the starting three, this was easily the most-productive unit on Chicago's roster – which has been the case for a decade now. Not many NFL teams send two players from the same position to the Pro Bowl, let alone nearly every season. Despite their age, Urlacher and Briggs are still two of the best in the business.
Urlacher and Roach are signed through next season, and Briggs through 2013. Expect Briggs to again bring up his contract heading into 2012. The team's new GM might acquiesce and restructure the deal. But even if he doesn't, I don't foresee Briggs holding out, especially if he thinks the team has a shot at making a Super Bowl run next year. He and Urlacher are both on the wrong side of 30, so next year may be their last real shot at winning a championship.
Which brings us to another point: the lack of depth at linebacker. Briggs and Urlacher have one, maybe two good years left in them, yet the Bears have no contingency plan as of now. The backups on the current roster include two mid-season signees and an undrafted free agent. That's it. Obviously, the time has come for the front office to start thinking about the future.
Yet it's going to be difficult for Bears brass to justify spending big money on free agent linebackers, or using high draft picks, for a position that includes two 2011 Pro Bowlers. With so many other positions of need, Chicago might be better off trying to find some experienced, low-cost veterans, and maybe a mid-round pick with a high ceiling, to round out the position.
If Urlacher and Briggs begin to show their age in 2012, then you acquire their replacements following next year's campaign. For now, spend the money and high draft picks on the positions that desperately need upgrades.
*Stats: TCK (tackles), SACK (sacks), TFL (tackles for loss), PD (passes defended), FF (forced fumbles), FR (fumble recoveries), TD (touchdowns), BLK (blocked kicks)
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.