Four Downs: Will Urlacher hold up?
While the offense is generating plenty of excitement heading into camp, it will be the defense, as usual, that will be counted on to lead a successful season.
Our Four Downs panel weighs in on several defensive storylines heading into the first training camp practice on Thursday:
Fact or Fiction: Brian Urlacher will start at least 14 games at middle linebacker.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Outside of 2004 and 2009, Urlacher has been one of the most durable defenders in the NFL throughout his career. The fact he skipped the offseason program is a blessing. At 34 years old, Urlacher needs to focus on preserving his body during the offseason. It’s not like he needs to learn the defense. With two consecutive Pro Bowl berths, Urlacher has shown no signs of slowing down. Expect the Bears to be cautious with Urlacher in training camp, which should help him reach the regular season at close to 100 percent.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. The knee injury Urlacher suffered in the 2011 season finale at Minnesota shouldn’t hinder his ability to start off training camp 100 percent healthy. Besides that, nothing else suggests that Urlacher’s health will be an issue. This is a guy who has started all 16 games in nine of his 12 NFL seasons, and he’s done so by taking impeccable care of his body on a week-to-week basis. So although he’s getting older, Urlacher hasn’t shown any evidence his body is finally breaking down. Let’s remember that the knee injury suffered against the Vikings last season was somewhat of a freak accident.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Who knows, right? Urlacher’s last couple of injuries have been freakish in nature and they tend to either come early (his wrist injury in the first game of the 2009 season) or late (in the last game of last season). He should come in relatively strong after a knee injury that could have been much worse, and at 34, he knows how to pace himself by now. No reason he shouldn’t start at least 14 games.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. We keep waiting for Urlacher to fall off the cliff, age-wise, but the linebacker looks to be ready to play, despite the knee injury he suffered at the end of the season. Urlacher’s game is not predicated by freakish athleticism anymore, but his mixture of brains, experience and, well, freakish athleticism (for his age) should allow him another couple seasons of high-impact football. Plus, according to the gossip columns, which I never, ever read, his lady friend Jenny McCarthy is moving to Chicago. That should inspire him, right?
Fact or Fiction: Chris Conte and Major Wright will still be the Bears' starting safety combination by Week 8.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Just look at recent history. For whatever reason, the Bears simply cannot settle on a starting safety combination. Conte might be OK, but Wright is either always injured or out of place on deep coverage. Craig Steltz and rookie Brandon Hardin will play this season. It’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when” Lovie Smith is forced to shuffle the safeties.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That’s not to suggest Conte and Wright don’t possess the tools or talent to be the starters, but the duo has two issues going against it: Neither player has been durable throughout their young careers, and the club’s general fickleness in recent years regarding the safety position. Wright missed five games as a rookie and four more in 2011. Conte, meanwhile, finished his rookie season on the injured reserve. It’s also worth noting that just last year the Bears lined up with eight combinations of starters at safety over 16 games. So sure, injuries played a role in the changes, and the coaching staff’s dissatisfaction with the play at the position played a part, too. Because Wright and Conte are still young players, they’re going to make the mistakes that come with inexperience. At some point, those mistakes will get one or both pulled from the lineup.
Melissa IsaacsonFiction. Stability at safety has certainly not been a theme under Lovie Smith with starters changing a staggering 56 times in 128 regular-season games. Poor play and injuries have obviously made those changes necessary, but it’s hard to put too much blame on the players for inconsistent play when rarely has anyone gotten comfortable at the position. Conte and Wright, both third-round draft picks, along with Steltz, give the Bears as much chance for stability as they have had in the last few years. But while Conte and Steltz had pretty good seasons last year, Smith remains loyal to Wright and will give him every chance to succeed. A few big plays, however, generally forces the coach’s hand and for this team, keeping the same duo back there is a luxury in which they just have not been able to partake.
Jon Greenberg:Fiction. A stable safety tandem at Halas Hall? As the wise Ralph Wiggum once said, “That’s unpossible.” When it comes to his safeties, it’s coach Teenage Lovie Smith. He’s a little fickle that way. Hardin and Anthony Walters could be the starters by Week 7. Who knows? Knowing the Bears, they’ll pick up a guy off the discard pile in August and he’ll be a factor.
Fact or Fiction: Henry Melton will receive a contract extension before the end of the regular season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Melton has definitely exceeded expectations with seven sacks in 2011, but he needs to keep working hard and not rest on his laurels. If he continues to get to the quarterback, then the Bears will be forced to address his contract before the season ends and not run the risk of being forced to overpay Melton in free agency. Urlacher’s expiring contract should be the club’s top priority, but a new deal for Melton shouldn’t be far behind.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. But that doesn’t mean he’ll sign it. During the season, the club -- under previous front office leadership -- made lowball extension offers during the season that some players liked, and others balked at signing. Melton’s impressive abilities are no longer a secret, and several scouts on other teams have taken note. So Melton might actually be better served by testing his value on the free agent market, which is something the Bears should know before they decide to make one of those cookie-cutter minimum offers similar to ones made in the past to other players. Obviously, Melton will need to perform in 2012 to maximize his earning potential. But I think he’s poised to do that with one full season as a starter now under his belt.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Though Melton is not the Bears’ top priority to re-sign, he is underpaid, and if he continues to progress as he did last season (he was actually third in the NFL among defensive tackles with seven), what he gives to the Bears in terms of starting ability as well as depth at the three-technique, makes him well worth signing to an extension before his rookie deal expires.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I don’t have a real reason for saying fiction. I just like to be contrarian.
Fact or Fiction: Shea McClellin will be an impact player as a rookie.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. McClellin must be an impact player. The Bears are in desperate need of another defensive end to apply consistent pressure opposite Julius Peppers. Even if the Bears use McClellin as strictly a situational pass rusher, it’s fair to expect the first-round pick to produce six to seven sacks. That would be considered a win for the Bears and fall into the category of McClellin being an impact player as a rookie. The fear is that McClellin becomes another Corey Wootton, the former 2010 fourth-round draft choice, who has contributed little. That would be a disaster. We’ll give Phil Emery the benefit of the doubt and assume McClellin was the correct choice at No. 19 over several more accomplished collegiate pass rushers.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. This kind of depends on the definition of “impact,” which obviously can be highly subjective. But based on history and McClellin’s position, it would be asking quite a bit for a rookie -- even a first-round pick -- to make an impact on a defense already full of impact players. More than likely, Israel Idonije will win the starting job opposite Peppers in training camp, relegating McClellin to a role as a third-down pass rushing specialist. Can he make an impact in that role? Absolutely, especially if the Bears are creative with how they deploy him. Still, my guess is he’ll need at least a season to acclimate and transition from the college game to the NFL. So if McClellin doesn’t make an immediate impact as a rookie, it doesn’t mean he’s a bust by any means. He’s still destined to be a major contributor, probably just not this season.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. The Bears definitely need him to be, and they certainly drafted him in the first round with that in mind, though they explored free agency and would have loved to have nabbed Jeremy Mincey. McClellin will get every opportunity to succeed and should still benefit by having Peppers on the other side. But can he be another Anderson, who had a rookie record 12 sacks as a fifth-rounder? Emery hopes so and as the situational pass-rusher McClellin will be, it could happen. But that’s a lot to expect.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I have a feeling the rookie is in for a little awakening. This isn’t Boise State, and I think all the post-draft excitement (“He’s a hard worker! He grew up on a farm! He’s country strong!”) colored the analysis a bit. Let’s see how he adapts to the speed and size of the NFL before anointing him to be any kind of impact player (like one-year wonder Mark Anderson) his first season. We’ve seen the Bears whiff on some defensive players via the draft in recent years, and while it’s a new regime at Halas, I’m still skeptical of any immediate impact by McClellin. Doesn’t mean he won’t turn out to be a good player.
Jeff Dickerson and Michael C. Wright cover the Bears for ESPNChicago.com. Jon Greenberg and Melissa Isaacson are columnists for ESPNChicago.com.