Brian Urlacher elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame on first ballot

Brian Urlacher elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame on first ballot

There was little doubt Brian Urlacher would be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame — the question was if it would be in 2018 or 2019. That, on Saturday, he was elected on his first ballot in a deep class of finalists was a well-deserved recognition of the career of one of the best middle linebackers to ever play the game.

Urlacher received at least 80 percent of the vote from the 48-person Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and will be enshrined in Canton in August, along with linebacker Ray Lewis, wide receivers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens and safety Brian Dawkins. Urlacher is the 28th Hall of Famer to make his name with the Bears, and will be the fourth former Bears linebacker to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. 

The 15 finalists in 2018 comprised what was considered a deep class — The Athletic’s Dan Pompei, a Hall of Fame voter who presented Urlacher, figured 85 percent of this group will eventually be elected. Urlacher overcame the committee’s perceived aversion to electing two linebackers in the same class; the last time that happened was 1990, which was also the last time two modern era defensive players who played the same position were elected in the same year. 

But Urlacher’s statistical profile and highly regarded intangibles made him a deserving first-ballot Hall of Famer. 

Urlacher was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. The eight-time Pro Bowler also was one of three linebackers named to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team. 

During a career that spanned from 2000-2012, Urlacher altered the course of Bears history and was the most important building block for the elite defenses of the Lovie Smith era (2004-2012). Urlacher totaled 1,779 tackles (via the Bears’ numbers) in 182 career games, along with 41 1/2 sacks, 22 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles. Urlacher started 180 of his 182 games with the Bears, good for the third highest total in franchise history behind Walter Payton (184) and Olin Kreutz (183). 

A true sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker who wasn’t afraid to take on opposing offensive lines, the Bears rode one of Urlacher’s four first-team All-Pro seasons to Super Bowl XLI in 2007. The Bears won the NFC North four times with Urlacher anchoring their defense; in those years, the team ranked first, first, third and fourth in points allowed per game. 

That’s just a snapshot of Urlacher’s career; his impact was felt well beyond individual and team statistics. Any Bears fan can attest to that, as can his former teammates and coaches. 

“You don’t get the chance very often to coach and be around a player and person like Brian Urlacher,” Smith told NBC Sports Chicago’s John “Moon” Mullin this week. “He absolutely knew what every player on the defense was supposed to do, on every play.”

And just as everyone in Chicago and connected to Urlacher had hoped, No. 54 is headed to where he belongs: Canton, immortalized among the greats of the game.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.