LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery sidestepped a direct question about the future of free agent middle linebacker Brian Urlacher but did say the veteran defender's level of play was improving at the time of his season-ending hamstring injury in Week 13.
Emery was asked if the club would make an attempt to re-sign the 34-year old Urlacher after the Bears cut ties with head coach Lovie Smith. Urlacher and Smith had a close relationship and the middle linebacker had thrived in Smith's defensive scheme since 2004.
"Good question, and I respect you asking that question," Emery said. "I will tell you that any of the contract situations I'm not going to speak on. I said it from the very beginning: I feel that is a privacy issue between the player the team. Those kind of discussions will happen with Brian and his agents, and that is where we will leave it."
Urlacher has long maintained he wanted to play only for Smith.
"I said this whole time I didn't want to play for any other head coach, and I still feel that way," he said Monday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "I can't imagine playing for anyone else after playing for him the last nine years. I never saw myself playing for anyone else, so I'm not sure.
"I've got some thinking to do. I'm a free agent. I definitely have some options. I want to keep playing football. I know that much. Once I'm healthy I think I can still do that at a pretty high level."
Urlacher emphasized though that even without Smith he wants to remain in Chicago.
"I feel like I'm a Bear, no matter what happens," he said. "I want to be here. ... I still don't want to play for anybody else, and I'll keep saying that until it happens, I guess."
Urlacher suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain on the second-to-last play of the Bears' overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 2. Although the middle linebacker returned to practice on a limited basis late last week, he was inactive for team's regular season finale versus the Detroit Lions.
"Coming back from the injury there was a time where he looked a little rusty and I think he admitted that himself in public," Emery said. "There was time he got better, that he got his feet back under him. Certainly there were times, like in the Seattle game, that he still has a burst. He chased (Seattle quarterback) Russell Wilson up the sideline and he was the only one to get to him. He has a burst in the center of the field. In our Tampa-2 system, he had to turn and get deep. From my own eyes, I never saw that to be an issue with Brian in terms of this year and him being able to do that. There are times because of the injury that he had that early in the situation his ability to stop, re-gather himself and redirect laterally was not there. But it did get there as the season progressed and just as he was about the turn the corner, he had the injury that ended his season.
"So did he make progress? Yes, he did. The things that are very difficult to replace for Brian and would be to replace for Brian if we were ever to move in a different direction is the leadership that he has and the knowledge base that he has of our system."
Urlacher headlines a long list of Bears' free agents that also includes defensive tackle Henry Melton, offensive guard Lance Louis, defensive lineman Israel Idonije, nickel back D.J Moore, linebacker Nick Roach and cornerback Kelvin Hayden.
The Bears were believed to have been working towards contract extensions for Melton and Louis during the regular season, but neither deal got finalized. Melton went on to make his first Pro Bowl while Louis went on injured reserve in late November with a torn ACL.