Outside of the offensive line, where upgrades are needed across the board, the biggest position of need this offseason for the Chicago Bears is at linebacker. Since 2004, the Bears have trotted out the duo of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, they of 15 combined Pro Bowls. Yet Urlacher's future is very uncertain, as he'll soon be a free agent coming off knee and hamstring injuries that depleted the 35-year-old of his playmaking ability last year.
Chicago GM Phil Emery has a tough decision to make in the next few weeks. Does he cut the face of the franchise or hang onto a player whose decline in play could be a hindrance going forward? With a new coaching staff on board, one that has no ties to Urlacher, it's very possible the Bears will soon part ways with Urlacher in an effort to start fresh under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Adding to the difficulty at linebacker is the fact both Nick Roach and Geno Hayes are also free agents. This means, of the team's top four linebackers from 2012, only Briggs is currently under contract.
LB Nick Roach
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports
The key here is Roach (6-1, 234). He has been the strong-side starter the past two seasons and filled in for Urlacher at middle linebacker the final month of the 2012 campaign. A former undrafted free agent out of Northwestern in 2007, Roach has spent his entire career with the Bears, starting 59 games in six seasons. He's not an overly explosive playmaker but Roach is a versatile, smart and experienced defender who can play multiple positions.
But is he a franchise player, the type the team can build around going forward? In all honesty, for as much value as Roach brings, that answer to that question is no. He's not going to lose you many games and his intelligence usually has him in the right position, yet he lacks the explosiveness and overall athleticism to be a game changer.
That said, Roach is a better option at this point than Urlacher. With Hayes likely to test the free agent waters, the Bears face the possibility of having to cobble together a new linebacker corps, with Briggs the only returning piece, through free agency and the draft.
That's not an ideal option, which is why the club must make a decision between Roach and Urlacher. If Urlacher's days are over in Chicago, Emery has to be very aggressive in re-signing Roach. The 27-year-old is a pure 4-3 linebacker with experience making calls and leading the huddle. He's not a Pro Bowler but he'll provide the continuity the Bears need as they head into this transitional phase.
At the very least, if the club makes significant linebacker upgrades with high draft picks and well-paid free agents this offseason, Roach's versatility would make him an ideal No. 4, being able to fill in at multiple positions.
Roach isn't flashy but he could be a crucial piece in Chicago's defense for the short term. Losing him and Urlacher is a gap the Bears shouldn't try to cross. Get Roach signed for a few more years, at a relatively cheap price, and go from there.
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.