Urlacher looked somewhat human for a while as we later found out that he had been dealing with arthritis in his back, but he was a monster the last quarter of the schedule and finished the year in the 55 Club – five sacks and five interceptions. Briggs missed two games with minor injuries, one early in the season and one late, although he still racked up over 100 tackles and continued to be one of the best open-field defenders in the league. Hillenmeyer was more of a factor than ever, occasionally keeping nickelback Ricky Manning Jr. on the sideline in passing situations and becoming a more well-rounded player.
Primary backup Jamar Williams filled in admirably when called upon, while Brendon Ayanbadejo, Rod Wilson, Darrell McClover and Nick Roach all made significant contributions on special teams – Ayanbadejo, in fact, was a Pro Bowler once again.
On the rise: Hillenmeyer was signed off the Green Bay scrap heap back in 2003, and he's continued to get better year after year. A fixture on the sideline in the past on passing downs, the former Vanderbilt Commodore has improved in coverage and allowed defensive coordinator Bob Babich to keep his base 4-3 package on the field more often. He's not a flashy player and won't fill up the stat sheet with "Wow!" plays, but he seemingly never misses an assignment and is a sure tackler.
Free falling: With free agency looming, Briggs already has one foot out the door and is going to become a very rich man before long. There has been some chatter around the Windy City that keeping Briggs might be a wise move on the heels of Urlacher's back problems and recent neck surgery, but there are other priorities on this team right now – plus many within the organization believe that Williams can step in right away on the weak side and get the job done. Briggs is a three-time Pro Bowl selection, yet it will be quite interesting to see just how good he is once he's not lining up next to No. 54 anymore.
LB Hunter Hillenmeyer
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Free agency/NFL Draft: The immediate reaction for many fans would be to find a replacement for Briggs in the draft, but Williams is ready to start and Michael Okwo, who missed his rookie year on injured reserve, will provide plenty of competition. Bears officials did not spend considerable time with any linebacker prospects at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, and none of the second-tier names available in free agency are decidedly better than what GM Jerry Angelo has on the roster right now. Ayanbadejo is also a free agent and wants to become the highest-paid special-teamer in the league at about $3 million per year, but he'd likely have to see that kind of money from another club.
2008 preview: Assuming Briggs bolts for greener pastures, we'll learn very quickly if the weak-side linebacker position is as easily replaceable in the Cover-2 system as some experts believe it is. Urlacher's back issues appeared to be less and less of a concern over the course of `07, but his offseason neck procedure – minor or not – only warrants more questions about how much the former Defensive Player of the Year has left in the tank. However, if Urlacher comes back fully healthy and Williams rises to the challenge, this unit might not miss a beat in `08.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.