INDIANAPOLIS -- Seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher might not get the money he wants to return to the Bears for a 14th season before he becomes an unrestricted free agent March 12th, but according to general manager Phil Emery, he will get respect -- for whatever that's worth.
Urlacher is one of 18 Bears unrestricted free agents, but he's also the one whose situation has attracted the most attention, as it did Thursday when the NFL's Scouting Combine kicked off. Urlacher no longer plays at a Pro Bowl level, so he's not worth anything close to the $7.5 million he made last season, but he's clearly superior to anyone on the current roster who would be plugged in at middle linebacker.
Emery must weigh Urlacher's value against his price tag while deciding how much effort and money he'll put into keeping the face of the franchise in Chicago.
And it will be a delicate balancing act.
The Bears are up against the salary cap and have other players they want to re-sign such as Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton. Discarding Urlacher, however, would be a public relations faux pas and bad for the team if a viable replacement isn't acquired in the draft or through free agency.
"If people are feeling he is slighted, it certainly isn't coming from me because I have great respect for Brian, first as a player," Emery said. "Where this ends up, we'll work through with Brian. That will be a private matter. When we come to a resolution, we'll let you know. Just know he'll never be slighted. I have too much respect for him.
"I was here (as a Bears scout) when he was drafted. I do have a connection that way. I was in those discussions when we took Brian Urlacher. He will never be slighted, whether he's here for an extended number of years or whether this is the end of his career as a player for the Bears. He will always be respected."
If all that sounds vague and noncommittal, welcome to the Phil Emery-Marc Trestman era, where playing it close to the vest is clearly the default position -- usually the only position.
The phrase "we're still in the evaluation process" has become the pat answer to nearly all personnel questions.
Regarding frustrated return specialist/wide receiver Devin Hester, who is still under contract but has broached the ideas of retiring or seeking a trade during a pouty off-season, Emery said: "Right now he is back. He'll go out there and compete to be our returner. What he does beyond that depends on how he performs in that first role as a returner."
Reading between the lines, Hester's role as a receiver is tenuous at best.
Gabe Carimi, who has been a huge disappointment since he was drafted in the first round in 2011, also has an uncertain future, but that appears to be more related to what position he'll play. He struggled at tackle and guard last season. Surprisingly, Emery said it will take a while to decide where he fits best.
"During OTAs (organized team activities in the spring), we'll get to see what his strengths and weaknesses are," Emery said. "(Coaches) see an upside to him as a tackle or a guard, and I'm sure that will take all the way through training camp to find his exact position.
"Gabe had some rough moments during the year. He had some good moments during the year. He had some really good run-blocking moments, but there are areas that he's got to improve as a pass blocker."
Carimi's ability to play up to expectations next year will be a key issue for an offensive line in need of improvement, but a healthy Lance Louis might be even more important.
Louis, who is also unrestricted, was last year's best O-lineman, but he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee Nov. 25. It would be optimistic to believe he'll be 100 percent at the start of training camp.
"Right now, Lance is fully into his rehab, and we are pleased with his progress," Emery said. "So at some point we'll sit down and talk with his agents and work through that."
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