It was announced this morning that former Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Roach has signed with the Oakland Raiders. Yesterday, Geno Hayes signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Brian Urlacher is talking with the Minnesota Vikings. If Urlacher signs elsewhere, Chicago will lose three of their top four linebackers from 2012, leaving just Lance Briggs under contract.
And the club has done nothing so far in free agency to address this mounting problem. GM Phil Emery moved swiftly to address the biggest holes on offense, signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett, but linebacker has been put on the backburner.
There are two reasons for this. First, the team is shifting its overarching focus to the offensive side of the football. So when two needs are equal, like linebacker and tight end, Chicago will lean toward the offensive player under Emery and coach Marc Trestman. Second, the Bears are pressed up against the salary cap and cannot afford to dish out a fat contract to a big-name free-agent linebacker, which includes Urlacher.
Urlacher is looking for a two-year deal worth roughly $11 million. As of this morning, the Bears have roughly $5 million left in cap space. Signing Urlacher at his current asking price would deplete the club – which still has 18 roster spots to fill – of all its spendable money. That's why talks have stalled between the two sides and the reason Urlacher is in discussions with the Vikings.
This is not an ideal situation for an organization that has sent at least one linebacker to the Pro Bowl in 11 of the past 13 seasons. Emery said yesterday that after signing Bushrod and Bennett, leaving the team with "little wiggle room" under the cap, he'll have to be economical in completing out the rest of the roster.
Translation: The Bears are looking for bargains in free agency and will be depending greatly on the success of this year's draft. With linebacker easily the biggest need on the roster, it's safe to assume Chicago will be selecting a linebacker in either the first or second round, or both.
Yet that still won't fill all the holes, meaning Emery must find value in the mid and lower tiers of free agency. Here are four players that have the potential to start in Chicago and won't break the bank.
Thomas Howard (6-3, 245), Cincinnati Bengals, Age: 30
Howard has been a consistent 4-3 OLB throughout his seven-year career, notching 90 or more tackles in four separate seasons. He's coming off an ACL injury that cost him all but one game last season, so he could come relatively cheap.
Justin Durant (6-1, 240), Detroit Lions, Age: 27
Durant is a young player who is very strong against the run. He played in Detroit's 4-3 and would be a good fit on the strong side for the Bears. He struggles in coverage but on a part-time basis, he could be a role player in Chicago and would come at a decent price.
Larry Grant (6-1, 251), San Francisco 49ers, Age: 28
Grant is a six-year veteran with only 11 starts under his belt. Yet, when called into action after Patrick Willis went down two seasons ago, he played very well. He didn't start a game in 2012, so he's flying under the radar. He won't cost much and could immediately move into a starting role with the Bears.
James Anderson (6-2, 235), Carolina Panthers, Age: 29
The Carolina Panthers released Anderson this week after six years with the organization. He signed a five-year deal worth $22 million in 2011 but didn't live up to that contract last season. Still, he's a solid strong-side linebacker who set a Panthers single-season record for tackles (174) in 2011. He played 12 games last season, missing four with a back injury, and finished with 73 tackles. Due to his struggles and injuries last year, he could come at a discount. At the right price, he'd fit in well as the starting SAM for 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.