Three of the Chicago Bears' top four linebackers are free agents. The contracts of Brian Urlacher, Nick Roach and Geno Hayes all expire on March 12, the start of free agency this offseason. Only Lance Briggs is signed through 2013.
As such, the Bears have some decisions to make. First, is Urlacher worth bringing back? His play last year declined dramatically due to his knee injury. It's unclear whether an offseason of rest will help him heal but it didn't do him any good last year. It's doubtful he'll ever again come close to playing like the Pro Bowler he's been throughout his career.
Still, 75 percent of Urlacher is better than 100 percent of a lot of linebackers. On top of that, he recently said he's willing to take a pay cut to stay in Chicago. The Bears could sign him for one year on the cheap and hope he can give them one final solid season.
Or the team might say goodbye to the face of the franchise the past decade and opt instead to re-sign Roach, who can play in the middle or on the strong side. His versatility and consistency would be crucial in keeping the team's defense in tact, and would give the front office options in free agency and the draft.
With that in mind, let's consider the linebacker options available to the Bears in free agency.
Phillip Wheeler (6-2, 240), Oakland Raiders, Age: 28
Wheeler is the highest graded free agent linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). He's a three-down OLB who played nearly every snap for the Raiders last season. His improvement last year, after four mediocre seasons in Indianapolis, was very impressive, particularly in his ability to blitz and pressure the quarterback. He's earned a big payday. For the Bears, he'd be well worth the money.
Daryl Smith (6-2, 248), Jacksonville Jaguars, Age: 32
Smith is one of the most consistent 4-3 outside linebackers in the game. He's smart, physical and a leader on the field. He missed all but two games last year with a groin pull and, at 32, is on the downswing of his career. Still, on a short-term deal, he would provide the experience and leadership the Bears would be lacking with the departure of Urlacher. Smith, who played the last four years under current Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, could start right away and would allow Chicago to develop some young players behind him.
OLB Nick Barnett
Nick Barnett (6-2, 228), Buffalo Bills, Age: 32
Like Smith, Barnett is a seasoned veteran who is good against both the run and pass. And like Smith, age is also a concern, but Barnett's experience, and relatively cheap price tag, would provide the Bears a solid short-term option. There's plenty of good football left in him.
Thomas Howard (6-3, 245), Cincinnati Bengals, Age: 30
Howard has been a consistent 4-3 OLB throughout his seven-year career, notching 90 or more tackles in four separate seasons. He's coming off an ACL injury that cost him all but one game last season, so he could come relatively cheap.
Manny Lawson (6-5, 240), Cincinnati Bengals, Age: 29
Lawson is a two-down player who struggles in coverage. Yet he's tough against the run on the strong side. As a situational player, he could contribute in Chicago. The seven-year veteran has 81 starts under his belt.
Justin Durant (6-1, 240), Detroit Lions, Age: 27
Durant is a young player who is very strong against the run. He played in Detroit's 4-3 and would be a good fit on the strong side for the Bears. Yet his value ends there, as he struggles mightily in coverage. On a part-time basis, he could be a role player in Chicago.
Leroy Hill (6-1, 238), Seattle Seahawks, Age: 30
Hill, an eight-year vet who has spent his whole career in Seattle, is another experienced, two-down linebacker. He has a history of off-field incidents and was arrested for domestic violence last month. As a result, he would come at a discount.
Brad Jones (6-3, 242), Green Bay Packers, Age: 27
Jones started 10 games in place of Desmond Bishop last year, emerging as a quality inside linebacker. He's a powerful run stopper and showed good athleticism in coverage. He ranked 10th best in the NFL amongst middle linebackers last year, per PFF. He's young and emerging, and could easily switch to MLB in Chicago's 4-3, making Urlacher expendable.
Dannell Ellerbe (6-1, 240), Baltimore Ravens, Age: 27
Ellerbe is finishing up his rookie contract and has started just 14 games in four seasons. Yet after Ray Lewis went down last season, Ellerbe emerged as a viable starter at middle linebacker. He's still young and is on the verge of breaking out. Slotting him inside for the Bears would go a long way toward solidifying the linebacker position in Chicago.
Larry Grant (6-1, 251), San Francisco 49ers, Age: 28
Grant is a six-year veteran with only 11 starts under his belt. Yet, when called into action after Patrick Willis went down two seasons ago, he played very well. He didn't start a game in 2012, so he's flying under the radar. He won't cost much and could immediately challenge for a starting spot with the Bears.
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.