Brian Urlacher is an eight-time Pro Bowler, a five-time All Pro, a former AP Defensive Player of the Year and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was named Defensive Player of the Year by "Football Digest" in 2001, has earned Defensive Player of the Week four times, Special Teams Player of the Week once, NFC Player of the Month twice and NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Month once. He was selected to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team and won the Brian Piccolo Award in 2007.
For the Chicago Bears, he set the franchises' all-time single-season tackles record with 153 takedowns in 2002 and holds the club's career tackles record with 1,192 … and counting.
Players with that type of pedigree are typically first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Yet even for players of Urlacher's caliber, a time comes when the organization for which he plays must begin planning for a future without him – just ask Peyton Manning. With Urlacher set to turn 34 before the start of next season, the Bears need to begin the search for his eventual replacement.
That player is not on the current roster. In fact, linebacker is arguably the position of least depth on the entire team. Had Urlacher, Lance Briggs or Nick Roach sustained a serious injury last season, the club would have been forced to call upon Patrick Trahan, Dom DeCicco or Jabara Williams, none of which have any significant experience at the NFL level.
That being the case, Chicago's front office should strongly consider selecting one of these early round middle linebackers in this year's draft – a few of which could serve as the team's long-term MIKE, after Urlacher retires in a few seasons. At the very least, a young middle linebacker could learn from the future Hall of Famer, and provide the team with needed depth.
Luke Kuechly, Boston College (6-2, 237)
Kuechly is a high-I.Q. player with all the intangibles to be a great middle linebacker at the next level. He won't wow you with his measurables, and he's small for the position, but his intelligence, athleticism and football smarts will make him a very productive player in the NFL. He shows great awareness and recognition, and is a solid tackler. He's limited somewhat in coverage but he's a smart, alert player that played DB in high school. His lack of straight-line speed makes me think he might be better served as an outside linebacker. There isn't a mock draft out there that doesn't have Kuechly penciled in as the Philadelphia Eagles' pick at 15th overall. And with the Bears not in dire need of an LB, it's doubtful they'll select him even if he does fall to them at 19.
Projected: Top 20 pick
LB Dont'a Hightower
Kevin C. Cox/Getty
Dont'a Hightower, Alabama (6-3, 260)
Hightower is a tough, in-the-box defender that hits hard. Athletically, he's at the top of the position. Combine that with natural aggression and nastiness and you get a player that could be a star as a pro. He blew out his left knee in 2009 and had surgery on his ACL, MCL and meniscus. He appeared fully recovered last season. Hightower is instinctive and a natural leader on the field. His weight room and film room ethic is legendary. He's solid in coverage and dangerous as a blitzer. He's one of the most impressive players in this year's draft.
Projected: 1st-2nd round
Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State (6-2, 250)
Burfict is an explosive player. He fills gaps hard and can rock ballcarriers. His ferocity on the field, as well outstanding reaction time, will translate very well at the next level. Yet it also creates needless personal fouls and temper penalties. His mental makeup is highly questionable. He's not that instinctive and can get swallowed up by bigger bodies. He's a dangerous pass rusher when blitzing but needs work in coverage.
Projected: 1st-2nd round
Audie Cole, North Carolina State (6-4, 248)
Cole played outside linebacker up until his senior season, excelling at both positions, so there is some versatility in his game. He's a tough defender in the box and shows good instincts. He shows good anticipation in coverage and can stay on the field in passing downs. Reads quarterback's eyes well. Aggressive in filling gaps against the run but has a hard time disengaging. Has enough speed to chase ballcarriers to the sideline but is an inconsistent tackler.
Projected: 3rd-4th round
BEAR REPORT PICK
As you can see, there aren't a lot of options for the Bears in the early rounds. Pure middle linebackers are few and far between this year, especially at the top of the draft.
The choice here is Hightower but only if he falls to Chicago in the second round. Most mock drafts have him going far before that point in the draft. The Bears will have to reach in the first round if they want Hightower but with much bigger positions of need, it's doubtful they'll do so.
Cole is intriguing and might be a good fit in the third round. He still has a lot of room to improve yet he's a smart player who could learn a lot sitting behind Urlacher for a few years. His experience on the outside would give him extra opportunities at playing time and provide roster flexibility. If he falls to Chicago in the fourth, he'll be tough to pass up.
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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.