In today's NFL, outside linebackers in 3-4 systems get all the attention. Those players are the edge rushers for their teams, the guys who rack up the sacks. As such, only 3-4 OLBs made the NFC Pro Bowl roster this season. Outside linebackers in 4-3 systems, guys who rack up tackles but not sacks, were overlooked.
Such was the case this year with Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs. Despite having a stellar season, even by his standards, Briggs was an afterthought when the Pro Bowl roster was assembled. Don't let that fool you though, the seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time All Pro had arguably the best season of his career.
With injury and inexperience all around him, Briggs excelled, serving as the glue for a defense that ranked at or near the top of the NFL in most statistical categories. And it doesn't appear the 32-year-old will be slowing down any time soon.
That's good news for the Bears, as he's the only starting linebacker under contract through next season. Let's break down the play of Chicago's linebackers this year to decide how an organization in flux should proceed going forward.
Briggs led the team in total tackles (102) and was second in tackles for a loss (6). He also had 1.5 sacks, 11 passes defended, two forced fumbles and two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns.
LB Lance Briggs
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports
What makes Briggs' season so spectacular was his consistent high level of play despite the uncertainty of Brian Urlacher, who was injured throughout the season and missed the final month with a hamstring injury. With Urlacher either hobbled or out the entire campaign, Briggs had to pick up the slack, and he did just that. According to Pro Football Focus, his performance ranked third in the NFL amongst 4-3 outside linebackers.
Chicago's defense finished eighth in the league against the run and Briggs deserves much of that credit. He is signed through 2014 and will likely be the centerpiece of the new defense, no matter the coordinator, for at least two more years.
Things have spiraled downhill for Urlacher since spraining his knee in the season finale last year. He rested the knee in the offseason but re-injured it early in training camp. That forced him to have his knee scoped a few weeks before the start of the season.
Once the games began, it was clear Urlacher was a shell of himself. He was unstable and slow, and could not push off the knee to change direction or plant himself against opposing blockers. In essence, one of the best sideline-to-sideline linebackers in the game's history was reduced to a pure North-South player.
That said, 75 percent of Urlacher is better than 100 percent of most other linebackers. Despite missing the final four games with a hamstring injury, he finished fifth on the team in total tackles (68) and first in tackles for a loss (8). He also added seven pass defended, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception, which he returned for a score.
After a stellar performance in Week 9 against the Tennessee Titans, Urlacher was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Not too shabby for a guy essentially playing on one leg all season. Overall though, his level of play dropped dramatically. Of 53 qualifying inside linebackers, Urlacher ranked 44th in 2012, according to PFF. By comparison, PFF ranked him 12th in the NFL in 2011. It's been a steep drop off for one of the greatest linebackers in franchise history.
Urlacher's contract is up and he will be a free agent this offseason. He said this year he still wants to play for another year or two but the leg injuries have taken their toll. Don't be surprised if he decides to retire and if he does play, the 36-year-old will never again perform at a Pro Bowl level.
So GM Phil Emery now has to decide whether it's wise to re-sign a hobbled, aging linebacker who has been the face of the franchise for nearly 15 years. My guess is that Emery will sever ties with Urlacher, choosing instead to re-build the linebacker corps around Briggs and a young linebacker.
Roach started at strong-side linebacker for the first 12 games, yet slid inside to middle linebacker after Urlacher pulled his hamstring. Roach showed great versatility this year. In two years as a starter, he has been very consistent, although his ceiling is limited. It's doubtful he'll ever make the Pro Bowl but, barring injury, he'll easily have a 10-year career in the NFL.
Like Urlacher, Roach is set to become a free agent this offseason. There has been talk that the Bears will try to keep Rod Marinelli as defensive coordinator after the new head coach is hired. If that happens, Roach deserves another two years to help ease the transition away from Urlacher. Even in a new system, a smart, dependable player like Roach would be very valuable.
LB Geno Hayes
When Roach moved inside, Hayes took over on the strong side. He played 141 snaps on the season and was relatively dependable over the last month of the campaign. He did struggle in coverage, giving up the highest completion percentage (70.6) and passer rating (107.7) of all the team's outside linebackers.
Hayes is only 25 years old and still has room for improvement. He is also a free agent but he's a project worth taking on. At the very least, he could serve as the Bears' backup swing linebacker, as he has experience on both sides. Another one-year deal for Hayes would keep needed depth on the roster.
Costanzo was signed last offseason to play special teams but ended up playing 23 snaps at outside linebacker and 14 snaps at inside linebacker in 2012. Against the run, he actually showed very well, demonstrating aggressiveness and hitting with power.
Costanzo was second on the team in special teams tackles (11) this year. He will also become a free agent this offseason. His play this year, on both special teams and defense, earned him at least one more year in Chicago.
Thomas, a second-year player who was on IR his rookies season, only played eight defensive snaps in 2012. On special teams, he finished eighth on the team with 6 tackles. Overall, the former sixth-round draft pick had minimal impact this season. He'll need to show a lot of improvement and have a strong training camp next year if he plans on making the final 53-man roster again in 2013.
DeCicco made the team last year an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh, where he played strong safety. He was second on the club in special teams tackles as a rookie and was developing as a linebacker in the preseason this year. Yet a groin injury late in training camp led to his release just before the start of the season.
When Urlacher was lost in Week 14, the Bears re-signed a healthy DeCicco to a two-year deal. The length of the deal is significant, as the club obviously feels he has a lot of potential. Athletically, DeCicco has it all. If he can continue to develop, he could turn into a starter in a few years.
The Bears will be wise to secure a young linebacker in the top half of this year's draft. The organization must find Urlacher's long-term replacement immediately. He can then work with Briggs, and possibly Roach, to ease his transition into the NFL.
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.