2012 was truly the end of an era for the Bears. Ever since 2001, when Urlacher stepped onto the field with Roosevelt Colvin and Warrick Holdman, it's pretty much been a guarantee that the Bears would be in the discussion for the best linebacking corps in the NFL. All of that went out the window when Brian Urlacher's knee crumpled into a heap in Minnesota last year. The guy that came back, no matter what we tried to tell ourselves, just wasn't the same, and now he's gone. Next year Lance Briggs will line up on opening day with two new partners for the first time in his career, be it DJ Williams and James Anderson or whomever the team picks up in this year's draft. While they may turn out to be a quality unit, and there's every reason to believe they will be, the days when the Bears could count on any play run to the Urlacher/Briggs side of the field dying a hopeless death are gone.
#55 Lance Briggs: 16 games, 16 games started, 101 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 11 passes defensed, 2 FF, 2 TDs.
Lance Briggs finally got his contract extension (again) and responded with potentially his best season at age 32. He was dominant against both the run and the pass, finishing with a +12.1 rating from Pro Football Focus. His interception return for a TD against Dallas was one of the coolest damn things I've ever seen on a football field, and he followed it up a week later with another one. The question going forward is how well he will do without Urlacher next to him. Briggs played good football after Urlacher's injury this year, but his worst year came in 2009 after Urlacher went down. Hopefully Briggs is ready to play without a safety net, because the team needs him to continue to be dominant for at least a few more years.
#53 Nick Roach: 16 games, 14 games started, 65 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 passes defensed, 1 FF, 1 fumble recovery.
As much as I try to understand advanced baseball statistics, WAR always eludes my grasp. What the hell, really, is a replacement player? I can tell you what a replacement middle linebacker is, though. It's Nick Roach. He graded out at a +0.2 last year, practically the dictionary definition of an average middle linebacker. At strong side he was slightly worse. He could have had the starting MLB job next year, most likely, but the Bears were very wise not to give him the $3-4 million a year that Oakland did.
#54 Brian Urlacher: 12 games, 12 games started, 70 tackles, 1 INT, 7 passes defensed, 2 FF, 2 fumbles recovered.
Sigh. This one hurts. I'm not going to get into the controversy surrounding his departure, or any of his statements after leaving the team. I've discussed it already. On the field, however, there's no denying that Urlacher is a liability. He graded out with a -13.5 against the run, and he was a huge factor in the run defense's decline in the second half. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick ran wild against him, as Urlacher was no longer capable of beating a mobile QB to the edge and pinning them in the backfield. He was still effective in pass defense, but played fewer snaps against the pass than he had in previous years, and he struggled to defend the deep seam route as he had in the past. It truly was time to move on.
#58 Geno Hayes: 15 games, 3 games started, 14 tackles, 1 pass defensed.
Geno signed with the Bears in order to get some meaningful reps and earn himself a chance to compete for a starting job with someone next year. He was pretty pedestrian when he did play, although he was a pretty valuable back up with his experience in the scheme and his versatility, but it was enough to get a contract from the Jaguars that the Bears weren't interested in matching. Good luck to you, Geno.
#52 Blake Costanzo: 14 games, 1 game started, 4 tackles.
Costanzo was the latest special teams ace and linebacker-in-name-only that Brad Biggs got all lathered up over, and he was certainly very good in that department. He actually graded out positively as both an OLB and an MLB in the limited reps that he got, but I don't think the team views him as anything more than a last-resort in that capacity, and they're probably right.
That's all for now. It seems like heresy to say this, but there's a good chance that the linebacking corps could be even better next year, even if it probably won't approach the consistent excellence of the last decade. You just can't replace the production a healthy Brian Urlacher gave you, but you can most likely improve on the production an injured one gave you with two younger, experienced players in DJ Williams and James Anderson.
Next time: Charles Tillman, how I love thee.