The Bears are gambling that troubled D.J. Williams, a first-round pick in 2004, can replace eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher -- at least for this year.
It's a fairly safe financial bet for the Bears because none of the money in Williams' $1.75 million ($900,000 base), one-year deal is guaranteed. The former Broncos starter, 30, will have to avoid additional transgressions to get paid and get his career back on track. He was suspended for nine games last season, losing six games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and three additional games for a second arrest on charges of driving while ability-impaired.
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The 6-foot-1, 242-pound Williams was due to make $6 million if the Broncos, who drafted him 17th overall, had not cut him last week. He started just one game last season and played in only seven. But the former Miami Hurricane has started 115 games in the NFL, at weak-side, strong-side and middle linebacker. He's expected to play in the middle for the Bears.
"We are happy to welcome D.J. to the Bears and are excited to start working with him," Bears general manager Phil Emery said on the team's website. "This is a great opportunity for D.J. to restart his career after coming off suspension.
"We see a player that has very good athletic upside who can contribute immediately at Mike (middle) linebacker. He is also a versatile player who has played both outside linebacker positions, giving us flexibility in the draft."
Along with quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall, Williams is the third former Denver starter to join the Bears.
While he lacks Urlacher's size, Williams has excellent range and instincts, which allow him to make plays sideline to sideline in the running game and to be effective dropping into pass coverage, an Urlacher strength when he was in his prime.
Urlacher and the Bears decided Wednesday to part company on less-than-ideal terms when the team refused to offer him more than $2 million on a one-year contract.
Urlacher said it was only "30 seconds" after his agent was told by the Bears they would not re-sign him that the team announced it on Twitter.
"I would have appreciated a call from, maybe not (general manager) Phil (Emery), but (team chairman) George (McCaskey) or somebody else I've been around," Urlacher said Friday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on WMVP 1000-AM. "I haven't been around Phil; he's been here for one year, so I don't know him all that well, but (a call) from somebody else in the organization I've been around for a long time (would have been nice)."
From 2004-11, Urlacher had 601 tackles, according to STATS LLC; Williams had 611, the most in the NFL. Both players had 20½ sacks over those eight years, and Urlacher had 50 stuffs, while Williams had 41½. A stuff, according to STATS LLC, is a tackle for no gain or a loss. Only three players had 600 tackles, 40 stuffs and 20 sacks from 2004-11. The other was Karlos Dansby, who was cut by the Dolphins last week.
The Bears are still expected to give serious consideration to selecting a linebacker in the draft. Weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs is 32, Williams is 30 and the Bears have lost linebackers Nick Roach (to the Raiders) and Geno Hayes (Jaguars) in free agency.