By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Rarely, do professional athletes ride off into the sunset on their own terms. Brian Urlacher is no exception. For every Ray Lewis fairy tale ending, you have Brett Favre the Viking, Joe Montana the Chief, Karl Malone the Laker, and Michael Jordan the Wizard.
So, rather than gnash your teeth at the Bears decision to move on from Urlacher, take a moment to cherish and hermetically seal the memories of the buzz-cut kid with the barbed wired tat terrorizing opponents, then turn the page. Our heroes are mere mortals, and this day was inevitable.
The NFL is ruthless both on and off the field. With the hard salary cap, there’s no room to appease players and pay them for past performance, and there’s no sympathy from opponents. Teams exploited Urlacher’s inability to flash that rare, explosive change of direction that’s made him a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, by running designed cutbacks, forcing him to round off his cuts on one leg and get lost in the wash.
Given how thorough Phil Emery appears to be, it’s safe to assume there’s a plan in place. Let’s not forget just nine days ago, Emery was the toast of the town after addressing pressing needs at left tackle (Jermon Bushrod) and tight end (Martellus Bennett). Let’s also not forget that the Bears need to fill holes at both Mike and Sam backer. The Bears have options in both free agency and the draft, so let’s take a look at some potential replacements.
- Karlos Dansby (MLB) – Dansby would be the ideal replacement at Mike backer. Dansby is a stout run defender, reliable in pass coverage, and would immediately become the best blitzer on the Bears defense. He’s enjoyed an injury-free career, appearing in 142 of 150 career games. However, short of some salary cap maneuvering – which the Bears can easily do – he may be a little too rich for the Bears blood. Dansby wasn’t released by the Dolphins for performance reasons, it was purely a financial decision to get cheaper production out of a younger player.
- Daryl Smith (SLB) – A groin injury cost Smith his 2012 season, but prior to that, he’s been quietly one of the most productive linebackers in the league. Smith is a strong run defender and pass defender, but is also a solid pass rusher from a two-point stance. Smith, who is 31, has ties to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, and coming off an injury-plagued season, he could be looking to bet on himself on a short-term “prove it” deal.
- Justin Durant (SLB) – Durant’s most recent run was with the Lions, but he also has ties to Mel Tucker. Durant, 28, is a strong run defender, but leaves something to be desired in coverage. Durant may only be a two-down linebacker who would come off the field in nickel situations.
- Alec Ogletree (Georgia) – A former safety, Ogletree is clearly the most intriguing physical prospect in the draft. He’s a violent hitter who quickly diagnoses plays, fills run gaps, but needs to become a better hand fighter to fend of blockers, and is fluid in coverage. However, he’s had some off-the-field issues, none more inexplicable than a DUI the week before the combine. In a locker room with a strong veteran presence, the Bears could feel the reward outweighs the risk, and bring in a potential impact player like Ogletree.
- Arthur Brown (Kansas State) – Brown is a touch undersized (6/241), but he makes up for it with speed and quickness. While he can get washed out in the run game at times, he’s adept at shedding blockers. In coverage, Brown has loose hips to turn and cover tight ends up the seam. A shoulder injury prevented Brown from working out at the combine, but he addressed any physical concerns after turning in a strong pro day.
- Kevin Minter (LSU) – Minter is also a touch undersized (6/242), and can be stiff in coverage, but is a force against the run. Minter plays with violent hands to jar and disengage blockers, but has shown a tendency to overrun plays laterally. Minter’s coverage skills are an issue, making him best suited as a Will or Mike.
All offseason, I called the Urlacher negotiation a delicate situation. Delicate in the sense that given the heavy emotional ties fans have to Urlacher, would new coach Marc Trestman and relatively new general manager Phil Emery be comfortable with the fan backlash of being characterized as the guys who cast Urlacher off? Clearly, they were, and did.
Personally, I feel incredibly fortunate for having seen every snap of Urlacher’s career. If anything, it’s yet another reminder of how quickly time goes by, and reinforces – to borrow a bit of pithy Seinfeld wisdom – that in the end, we’re all really cheering for clothes.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.