PLAYERS TO WATCH
LB Brian Urlacher: At 31 years old and entering his 10th NFL season, can Urlacher recapture the form that got him voted to six Pro Bowls in a seven-year stretch from 2000-06?
The Bears certainly seem to think so. And it's not as if the 6-4, 258-pound middle linebacker has fallen on hard times in the past two years. He missed out on the trip to Hawaii in 2007, but he led the Bears in tackles and became just the third Chicago player since 1982 to have five sacks and five interceptions in the same season.
Last season was a bit of a downer, though. Urlacher had just 93 tackles, third best on the Bears, and for just the second time in his career he did not finish first or second on the team. The only other time that happened was in 2004, when he missed seven games with various injuries.
His interception total in '08 dropped to two, and he failed to get a single sack for just the second time in his career.
But coach Lovie Smith was pleased with what he saw from Urlacher in the offseason, while admitting that last season was far from his best effort.
"When I say he's back to old form," Smith said, "we haven't performed the way we need to [as a team], period. Brian has been a part of that. But all you can do in the offseason is get your body ready to go. There are no issues with his neck, back or anything like that. He is excited about where our football team is. We feel like we're going to be pretty good, and he's one of our leaders."
Urlacher has been dogged by neck and back injuries the past two seasons, and the neck problem required offseason surgery in 2008. But he started all 32 games in '07 and '08, although he has frequently missed practice time to heal nicks and nagging injuries.
Urlacher hasn't been to the Pro Bowl since '06.
Warren Wimmer Photography
The 2009 version of Urlacher could be the healthiest model in some time, and general manager Jerry Angelo believes he could be back to his old Pro Bowl self this year.
"Brian spent the whole offseason here, and that's a big thing to have him train with us," Angelo said. "When he played his best football for us, he was here in the offseason. I feel he can get back to a Pro Bowl level."
This is defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bob Babich's sixth season with Urlacher, and he's enthused about the possibilities for the coming season.
"Brian Urlacher's had the best spring since I've been here," Babich said on the Bears' official Web site. "I'm very excited about him going into the season. He's a dominant football player, and we feel like he's going to play dominant football this year."
That would go a long way in helping the Bears defense regain its Super Bowl form of 2006. In 2008, the defense plummeted all the way to No. 30 in passing yards allowed, No. 29 in sacks and No. 21 in total yards allowed.
CB Nathan Vasher: "The Interceptor" was rewarded with a Pro Bowl trip following a 2005 season in which he picked off eight passes, and he signed a five-year, $28 million contract extension before '07.
But ever since getting the big money, the former fourth-round pick has been a major disappointment. He started just two games in 2007 because of a torn groin muscle and had just one interception. Last season was more of the same, when injuries limited him to seven starts and one pick. He also did not seem nearly as willing to help in run support as he did before cashing in.
In order to secure a spot on the roster, Vasher needs to regain his starting job and the form that helped him pick off 16 passes in his first three seasons.
The Bears are probably deeper in talent at the linebacker spot than anywhere else, and with Urlacher and weak-side Lance Briggs entrenched, that leaves several contenders battling for the starting spot on the strong side.
Pisa Tinoisamoa, who was signed after being cut by the Rams, is the leading contender considering he has been a productive starter in all six of his NFL seasons. But he'll have to win the job, and that might not be easy.
Hunter Hillenmeyer started for four consecutive seasons along with Urlacher and Briggs before losing the job to Nick Roach last season. Roach started the final nine games of the year and displayed the speed and athleticism that the Bears value in their linebackers.
Another contender is fourth-year player Jamar Williams, who was considered a starter in waiting the past two seasons until he was passed by Roach on the depth chart. But the 25-year-old Williams had one of the best offseasons on the team according to coaches, and he wants to do more than excel on special teams, which he has done the past two campaigns.
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