Bears fans, stop me if you've heard this one before: star linebacker Brian Urlacher's health problems will keep him out of action for the next few weeks. In this case, as reported by the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, it's arthroscopic knee surgery (a follow-up to the sprained ligaments he suffered in last year's season-ending tilt with Minnesota).
The short-term news isn't actually too worrisome for the Bears, as Urlacher still has a realistic shot at returning for the season opener against the Colts. In the bigger picture, though, it's time to give serious thought to life without the eight-time Pro Bowler.
Urlacher has rarely been anything short of sensational when he's been on the field, but a long string of widely assorted injuries have made it tough for the Bears to count on having his skills and leadership in the lineup. Moreover, he commands a big enough chunk of Chicago's salary cap (he'll make $7.5 million this season) that keeping a viable backup on the roster has been a virtual impossibility.
Urlacher is a free agent after the season, and brilliant as he's been, the Bears need to be pragmatic in their negotiations with him.
If he's willing to take a pay cut commensurate with his injury history and age (35 by the start of training camp next year), then it would be great to have him finish his career in a Chicago uniform. If, however, he expects to command Pro Bowl money at an advanced age a la Baltimore's Ray Lewis—and that seems a likelier scenario—the Bears would be better off spending those dollars elsewhere.
What are the Bears' chances of getting a full season out of Urlacher? 50 percent? Worse?
They can't afford to play 100 percent of a major contract with those odds, especially when an injury would force the ineffective Nick Roach into a key role in the defense...again.
Instead, the Bears should prioritize the middle linebacker spot in the draft (rarely a difficult task, as most teams are focused on getting outside pass rushers) and snap up a young talent who can be a long-term solution at the position. Urlacher's had a great run in Chicago, but the Bears simply can't afford to count on him playing like Brian Urlacher any more.