Off-season assessment

Free Agency officially starts on February 28th. After the Combine, many Universities will hold private workouts for players from neighboring colleges. All of this leads up to the draft, which takes place at the end of April. What follows is an assessment of the current status of the Bears linebacking core.

As the Bears head into this very active part of the football "offseason," they have many holes to fill and questions to answer. From a free agency standpoint, they do not have many players they could potentially lose. Rosey Colvin is the focus here, and his $5 million dollar a year demands may usher him out the door. Colvin's loss could be problematic to the entire front 7. He was the team's most consistent pass rushing threat since Richard Dent. Although somewhat maligned for his coverage liabilities, he is developing into a serviceable strong side linebacker in standard sets. His loss would put a hole at linebacker and defensive end. His loss would also be felt from a leadership standpoint. Colvin is by far one of the more popular members of the team--among the fans, his coaches, and fellow players. From a productivity standpoint, he's coming off back-to-back seasons of more than 10 sacks. It's nearly impossible to argue with that level of production.

Mike Caldwell might be a candidate for the strong side, although coaches were down on his play last year filling in for Warrick Holdman on the weak side. Speaking of Holdman, he's coming off yet another knee surgery. Pronounced ready to play even late in the season, red flags have to be raised about his durability. An option not often discussed is moving Holdman to the strong side, where he played his college ball at Texas A&M. This would leave the surprising Bobbie Howard on the field at weak side linebacker. Howard is a restricted free agent. He figures to be tendered an offer to remain on the team. Some decision will need to be made on Caldwell's future. He was perceived as a very good player coming in, and if he cannot start, is a bit too high-priced to be sitting on the bench.

Rookie Bryan Knight showed flashes of being a similar player to Colvin in his limited snaps. Knight was an undersized defensive end in college at Pittsburgh, much like Colvin was at Purdue. Neither player times well in the 40, but both have great first steps and natural instincts for the ball. There's a load of linebackers hitting free agency, with very few that could serve the same role as Colvin.

Brian Urlacher returns as the most talented player on the team and one of the best players in the game. He's signed through 2004; so Bear fans can count on at least two more years of exciting play. If Colvin is lost to free agency, it will mean more pressure will be put on Urlacher to create pressure. While this sounds like a good thing on the surface, his coverage at the position would then be missed. Urlacher doesn't have a suitable backup at middle linebacker and a player who can play both the middle and strong side would be a welcome addition to the unit.

Linebacker Summary

INJURY IMPACT: Medium (7): Holdman's knee is supposed to be ready. Regardless, it's still a concern since he ties up a lot of money and has had several knee surgeries in a young career.

CONTRACT IMPACT: High (9): Colvin is hitting free agency, as is Howard. Holdman's big deal put them in a hard spot to retain Colvin, and the money necessary to retain Brian Urlacher a few years down the road keeps going up faster than college tuition.

SUMMARY OF NEED: Medium to high (7): Something will need to be done to address the Colvin situation, either in replacing him with another player, tagging him, or finding dollars to keep him a Bear. The injuries suffered by Holdman make him a question mark. Mike Caldwell's inconsistent play makes his future cloudy. Urlacher is the biggest lock on the unit and the team. Howard is a restricted free agent, but appears to have won a place in the hearts of the fans and coaches.

RESOURCES: With all the money invested at this position, the Bears will need to look to the draft to restock, as well as a possible retread free agent who can do the little things needed until a younger player is ready to contribute.

SUSPECTS: A few names coming through the draft after the first round that might be able to fill a similar role to Colvin include: Antwan Peek of Cincinnati, Shurron Pierson of Southern Florida, and Bryant McNeal from Clemson. A good candidate for strong side linebacker from a traditional standpoint would be Victor Hobson from Michigan. Hobson would fit the role described earlier as a player who can play both the middle and strong side. Linebackers from the pro ranks who might make sense who are also good pass rushers include Jay Foreman and Jeff Posey from the Houston Texans.

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