It appears the Chicago Bears aren't yet sold on Brian Urlacher beyond next season. He finishes out his five-year, $56 million contract this year and is set to hit free agency next offseason, unless a long-term deal is reached before then.
As shocking is it would be for Chicago fans to see him play for another team, according to Urlacher, the Bears are planning on waiting until after this season to consider re-signing him.
"I think [Bears president] Ted Phillips said they are going to wait until the season is over to see what happens -- how I play," Urlacher told WMVP-AM (via NFL.com) on Friday. "It's kind of exciting. I've never been a free agent. So, if I can get to free agency, we'll see what happens."
Urlacher is still recovering from a severely sprained knee suffered in the season finale last year and hasn't participated in any of Chicago's OTAs up to this point. For a player like Urlacher, who relies on his speed and explosiveness, a knee injury could sap him of that which makes him a Pro Bowl linebacker. For that reason, the organization is taking a wait-and-see approach with the 12-year veteran.
LB Brian Urlacher
Urlacher said he wants to come back but would welcome the potential payday unrestricted free agency might offer him.
"I no doubt want to finish my career here. There's no doubt about that," he said. "But if you bring in free agency you never know what can happen. You know, the Bears know I want to be here. I've said it publicly and that's not going to change. Whatever happens during the season or after the season, we'll address it then."
For the Bears, they need to find out if their 34-year-old linebacker can cheat father time and be an All Pro for a few more seasons. Yet at a position like middle linebacker, where high speed collisions with offensive linemen and running backs are the norm on every single play, productivity typically fades as players reach their early-to-mid 30s, if they're able to play that long.
Bears great Dick Butkus retired at 31 years old. Mike Singletary turned 34 in October of his final season. Ray Nitschke played three seasons at 34 or older, yet he averaged less than four tackles per game during those final years, compared to 13 tackles per game the nine previous campaigns.
Jack Lambert, considered by many the best middle linebacker in the history of the game, retired before his 34th birthday.
More recently, Junior Seau played seven seasons at 34 or older. Yet injuries plagued him down the stretch. He played only two years in which he participated in more than eight games, and only one season where he played in all 16.
Yet Tedy Bruschi played at 34 and 35 years of age, starting 29 productive games during his final two seasons. And then there is the current benchmark, Ray Lewis. Lewis turned 34 three years ago; he's been named to the Pro Bowl in each of those three seasons.
Still, history shows that, if a middle linebacker even makes it to 34, his production is very likely to drop off. Yet with Urlacher, a physical freak from the moment he came into the league in 2000, that drop off could be much more gradual, which may offer him Lewis-like production well into his late 30s.
And don't forget, Urlacher basically missed all of 2009 with a wrist injury, saving him a full season of wear and tear on his body. He has showed no ill effects since, with the last two years being two of his most productive.
While he's shown no signs of slowing down, the knee injury is worrisome. If Urlacher can't chase down ball carriers sideline to sideline or, more importantly, drop into the deep middle of Chicago Cover 2 defense, his value as a defender will be severely compromised.
Which is why it makes sense for the team to see how it all shakes out this year. Urlacher is an institution in Chicago and has said on numerous occasions he wants to stay in the Windy City. He's not the type to hold a grudge just because they waited to re-sign him. So there's little risk in him spurning the only NFL organization for which he's played.
So the Bears are wise in taking their time. If he steps up in 2012 and earns a trip to his ninth Pro Bowl, the Bears should feel comfortable extending him for two or three more seasons. But if he shows a dropoff in production, the two sides will be able to negotiate in much better faith this upcoming offseason.
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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.