Bears

Back to the Future: Urlacher hops in time machine

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Back to the Future: Urlacher hops in time machine

Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010
4:35 PM
By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

Veterans will tell young players dealing with injuries that the long view is the way to look at those setbacks. "Think of it this way," a Bears veteran once told a rookie offensive lineman who was down about being ticketed for injured reserve with an injury. "You just got a year added onto your career."

The bromide does not just apply to young players. And sometimes it seems to add more than just one year to a career.

Brian Urlacher was lost for the 2009 season less than two full quarters into it when he suffered a fractured wrist in Game 1 last year against the Green Bay Packers. The 11-year veteran was 31 at the time and the immediate question of a fixture at one of the high-impact positions in professional football was whether he could in fact come back at his advanced NFL age.

The questions were proved right. He has not come back to the level he was playing at before the injury.

"Time machine" timeframe

He has, in the eyes of someone studying him very closely, come back better.

"He's got a time machine somewhere because he dialed it back three or four years, and he's playing at a really high level," said Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz. "I don't know if there's a middle linebacker playing at a higher level in the NFL.

"He's good against the run. He's good against the pass. All those things," Schwartz said. "There's not a whole lot of holes in his game. One-trick ponies, you can take out of the game plan. But Urlacher doesn't have those kind of weaknesses."

The only NFC linebacker playing at Urlacher's level, based on initial Pro Bowl votes at inside linebacker, might be San Francisco 49er Patrick Willis. But Schwartz and the Bears might call for a recount that plays out and Urlacher is not selected for his seventh Pro Bowl.

It would be his first since the 2006 season, meaning Schwartz's time-machine timeframe is just about right.

"I'm sure the year off didn't hurt me any," Urlacher said. "The way coach Lovie Smith structures our practices and training camp and the bye week, it gives us a chance to maintain your health. You're going to get banged up in the season but for the most part, knock on wood, we've been pretty healthy for the most part. The way he does practice lets us maintain that health."

Urlacher is the only member of perhaps the NFL's top defense to have at least one entry in every Bears defensive playmaker category: tackles (89, leads team), tackles for loss (9, leads team), QB pressures (3), sacks (2.5), interception (1), pass breakups (7, second to Charles Tillman), forced fumbles (1) and fumbles recovered (3, leads team).

Julius Peppers is missing just a fumble recovery; Lance Briggs lacks only a quarterback pressure.

"Everybody knows what Brian brings to the table, an incredible player and a key part of this defense," said defensive end Israel Idonije. "He's a leader. When you have your leader and your core back and doing what he does, he's like the quarterback of our defense, so it's big to have him back."

Urlacher is one of the reasons Peppers cites behind the defensive end's desire to play in Chicago.

Reversed aging?

Urlacher has posted double-digit tackle totals in three of the last four games (all Bears wins; coincidence?) and in five of the Bears' 11 games this season. In another indication that the time machine is fully operational and doing some reverse-aging, Urlacher had 10 double-digit games in 2006, seven in 2007 and three in 2008.

Yet not everyone is necessarily surprised by Urlacher's return from the wrist injury, but also ramping back to Super Bowl levels at age 32.

"I'm impressed by him every year," said Briggs, second to Urlacher with 81 tackles. "Injuries are a part of the game. When they happen, you have to bide your time until you're able to come back. Then once you're back, it's for a guy like him, there's no change.

"You just stay hungry. Once you get back out on the field, you get back out and you make plays because you're a playmaker."

Making changes

Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis has maintained his high level of play with the help of yoga. Urlacher told CSNChicago.com that his program is not specifically yoga but it is doing for him what yoga has done for Lewis.

"I've been doing a program that's pilates and yoga and stretching mixed in," Urlacher said. "I've been doing it for three years and my body feels great. It's a lot of core work and a lot of the guys on the team do it, too. When my back was hurting a couple years ago, I tried five, six things trying to feel better and it wasn't working.

"Then I found people who helped make it better. Thirty minutes a day and I feel great. I do it and my hips can move right, my back feels better, I can move again. I'll do it the rest of my life."

The Bears are seeing a lot of that life right now.

"We talked about him in training camp the same way," Lovie Smith said. "When you're Brian Urlacher and you're healthy, No. 1, you have a good chance of good things happening for you. Brian is a heck of a football player, one of the best around. He's played like that from the start of the season to now.

"We need those guys for this push right here. He played outstanding ball this week but we've talked about him; his grades from every game are about the same. He's capable of really taking a game over but that's just a matter of time before that happens."

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

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.

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

2017 grade: C-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy

 

Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.

 

There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.

 

If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.

 

The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.

 

Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 

Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.

 

Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.

 

The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.

 

The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.