How can Bears fill the Urlacher void?
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So now what?
It's obvious that Brian Urlacher's successor does not currently reside on the Chicago Bears' roster, so help will have to come from outside Halas Hall.
First, though, let's make a few things perfectly clear:
• There's no way Lance Briggs is moving from the weak side to the middle. He's said he wants no part of that move as recently as last season.
• Any talk of moving Shea McClellin from defensive end to middle linebacker has been repeatedly refuted by General manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman, although that continues to be a hot topic of conversation.
• There's not much talent out there, and no much money for the Bears to spend.
There are a few players in free agency who would be an upgrade over Urlacher, but the Bears do not currently have the financial resources to go shopping for top talent. A plug-in replacement could be available in a month when the Bears are on the clock at No. 20 in the first round of the draft.
The Bears' current roster features no one, aside from Briggs, who has ever been a starting-caliber linebacker. And no one on the roster has that kind of potential. That leaves two holes at linebacker — one gaping, the other merely essential.
Lack of depth
Special teams ace Blake Costanzo is a try-hard career backup who has started one game in his six-year career. That was last season when he opened at strongside linebacker after Nick Roach moved from that spot to the middle to fill in when Urlacher was out with his hamstring injury. And that was only after last year's top backup, Geno Hayes, was injured.
Roach and Hayes are both history, having signed as unrestricted free agents with the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively.
That leaves Costanzo and J.T. Thomas, a 2011 sixth-round pick who also doesn't figure as anything more than a special-teams player. Same goes for Dom DeCicco, an undrafted free agent from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 who was waived last preseason but then re-signed late when injuries hit, and Jerry Franklin, who was signed off the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad late last season.
Free agency limited
If the Bears try free agency to fill the void left by Urlacher's departure, they'll find a handful of solid players. But most of them are too old and/or too expensive for a team that is up against the salary cap. Most of the available linebackers are role players with question marks. They aren't an upgrade over Urlacher.
The top middle linebacker remaining in the free-agency pool is Karlos Dansby. He was cut by the Miami Dolphins in a salary-cap maneuver, and because they wanted to get younger at the position, even though he had his most productive season in 2012 with 134 tackles. Dansby has 16 career forced fumbles and 11 interceptions, but he will be 32 at midseason and is looking for something close to the $8.8 million he made last season.
Nick Barnett, who was cut by the Buffalo Bills after leading the team in tackles in his two seasons there, will be 32 before training camp starts. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Barnett played on the weak side in Buffalo last season, but he played inside for Green Bay in his first eight NFL seasons after the Packers drafted him in the first round out of Oregon State in 2003.
Daryl Smith, who was cut by the Jaguars, seems to make sense, considering he played for the Bears' new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker in Jacksonville. But Smith, who turns 31 next month, is more of an outside linebacker, and he missed 14 games last season with a groin injury. Because of age and injury concerns, he could be a bargain.
An intriguing option is the Packers' Brad Jones, who emerged as a solid starter last season after two years as a special-teams player. But Jones, who will be 27 in April, met with the Packers on Wednesday and also has been courted by the Titans.
If the Bears wait until the draft, there's a good possibility Notre Dame's Manti Te'o will be available. If they're not turned off by the dating fiasco or his pedestrian 40-time, they could get an instinctive, versatile player who could step in from the first day of training camp and anchor a defense.
Talent-wise, Georgia's Alec Ogletree is supremely gifted and a top-10 player, but character concerns could see him fall to the Bears' spot. Like Te'o, Ogletree is a three-down linebacker who gets high marks as a run defender and in passing coverage.
Ogletree's teammate, Jarvis Jones, is the most complete 4-3 linebacker on the board, but he's expected to be long gone when the Bears pick.
The Bears could wait until the second or third round and still get a starter, as they did in 2003 when they drafted Lance Briggs with the 68th overall pick. Based on projections, LSU's Kevin Minter and North Carolina's Kevin Riddick, a four-year starter, both could step into a starting lineup early on, especially on a team that has an immediate need.
• Follow Bob's NFL reports on Twitter @BobLeGere, and check out his Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com/sports.
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