The Chicago Bears have 18 players about to his unrestricted free agency. Among all those players, the toughest decision for GM Phil Emery will be whether or not to re-sign linebacker Brian Urlacher, the face of the organization since 2000.
Urlacher – an eight-time Pro Bowler, five-time All Pro and 2005 AP Defensive Player of the Year – is coming off the worst season of his career. The 34-year-old sprained his knee in the season finale in 2011 and never fully recovered. He had the knee scoped in training camp this year, which further set back his recovery.
While he was on the field for the start of the season, it quickly became obvious that the knee injury had sapped him of his trademark burst. Beyond his lack of speed, his inability to change directions truly hindered his performance. As a north-south player, Urlacher was solid. He led the Bears in tackles for a loss (8) and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 9.
Yet when Urlacher needed to plant on his knee, whether to change direction or stabilize his body against an opposing blocker, he was instantly taken out of the play. Time and time again, Urlacher was painfully ponderous when trying to move laterally.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded Urlacher at -11.2 on the 2012 season, by far the worst of all of Chicago's defenders. The second worst individual performance on the Bears' defense last year, according to PFF, was Kelvin Hayden, who graded at -2.9, which just shows you how poorly Urlacher played.
In 2011, PFF graded Urlacher at 8.8. In 2010, he graded at 14.3. Based on this objective analysis, it's easy to see Urlacher's steep and dramatic drop off last season.
To emphasize his lack of mobility, let's take a look at one play from the Week 13 game against the Seattle Seahawks – the last game Urlacher would play this season before pulling his hamstring
At the snap, DE Julius Peppers slides across the face of Okung. Urlacher sees the play coming his way and takes a step forward into the B gap.
Peppers uses a swim move to fly inside of the blocker, which knocks Okung to his knees. With Lynch about to take the handoff, Urlacher has already taken two steps forward.
Lynch sees a pile, created by Peppers, at the point of attack. The ball carrier has no choice but to bounce the play outside. The white circle shows Okung, who is just a body lying on the ground. Urlacher (blue arrow) is positioned right behind Peppers and Okung. Yet Urlacher cannot plant his leg and mimic Lynch's cut to the outside because he's unable to maneuver around Okung.
As you see here, Lynch (white) turns the corner and Urlacher is still stuck five yards to his inside.
This is just one play in one game, but this was a common occurrence for Urlacher all season: he was able to run forward but when the time came to change direction, he was left in the dust by the ball carrier.
On this play, Urlacher steps forward and fills the B gap. This forces Lynch to cut outside. As Lynch makes his cut, Urlacher looks down and sees Okung on his knees. Rather than planting off his knee, stepping around the downed offensive lineman and catching Lynch, Urlacher can do nothing more than stand there as the ball carrier flies around the edge.
This was the last game Urlacher played this season, so at this point the knee was as healthy as it was all year. Yet he still could not plant on the leg. For a player of his age, with so much wear and tear already on his body, it's highly unlikely he'll ever again come close to 100 percent.
There will come a point this offseason where Emery will have to decide if paying Urlacher a large salary is in the best interest of the team. By looking at the tape, it's clear that parting ways with Urlacher and re-building the club's linebacker corps is the prudent move for Emery and the Bears.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.