While the Chicago Bears have spent the entire offseason publicly dodging questions about the future of Brian Urlacher, it looks as if the veteran free agent linebacker is preparing to play a 14th NFL season.
Urlacher posted a photo on his official Twitter account (@BUrlacher54) that showed him training in a sandy, warm weather climate, presumably Arizona, where he resides in the offseason.
The message that accompanied the photo read: "Can't wait for the season to start -- BU #gettingitdone."
Urlacher battled through a variety of injuries last season that cost him essentially the entire preseason and the final four games of the regular season after he suffered a strained hamstring against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 2. Urlacher appeared poised to head into the offseason healthy, unlike last year when he hurt his knee in the 2011 regular season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. That knee injury required several procedures to correct and greatly contributed to Urlacher's mediocre 2012 campaign, where he still managed to rank fourth on the defense with 88 tackles in just 12 starts.
Neither new Bears coach Marc Trestman nor general manager Phil Emery have tipped their hands much when asked about Urlacher. Emery told reporters two weeks ago the NFL combine that Urlacher will not be slighted by the club during the free agency process.
"If people are feeling that he's slighted, it's certainly not coming from me, because I have great respect for Brian as a person and as a player," Emery said. "Where this ends up, we'll work through Brian and his agents on that and that will be a private matter, and when we come to a resolution, we'll let everybody know. But just know, he'll never be slighted. I have too much respect for him.
"I was here when he was drafted . I do have a connection that way. I was in those discussions when it came to how we took Brian Urlacher, so I have tremendous respect for him. He will never be slighted as a Bear, in any shape or matter, whether he's here for an extended number of years or whether this is the end of his career as a player for the Bears."
The feeling at the NFL combine was that the majority of the Bears' organization still views Urlacher as an important piece on defense and worthy of another contract with the club. But the core issue is expected to boil down to compensation. Urlacher, who turns 35 on May 25, earned $8 million last season in the final year of his contract. With the Bears already allocating $8.45 million of salary cap space to franchise tagged defensive tackle Henry Melton, it's unclear how much the team can or is willing to pay Urlacher to continue his career in Chicago.
Urlacher always has maintained publicly that he wants to stay with the Bears, and even said he would take less money during a recent visit on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN Chicago 1000.
"When you look at my age, it's going to be hard to not give them a discount," Urlacher said. "I'm not going to make what I was making in the past. How about that? Does that make sense? That's fair."
NFL starters are often reluctant to take a significant pay cut because their on and off-the-field roles rarely change despite earning a reduced salary. However, it seems reasonable to speculate that new Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker might consider modifying Urlacher's role on the defense next season. The Bears could remove him from the field in passing situations in favor of a younger, quicker linebacker, like fellow unrestricted free agent Nick Roach, who is able to cover more ground in pass coverage. In theory, reducing Urlacher to two-down linebacker status would slightly decrease his value from a contractual perspective, but there is no guarantee Urlacher would accept such a deal.
The eight-time Pro Bowler Urlacher has been the face of the Bears' franchise for most of his 13-year career, and brings to the table certain leadership intangibles that many in the organization view as invaluable.