Brian Urlacher May Be Old, but He's Far from Done in the NFL

Andrew Dannehy@@ADannChiBearsCorrespondent IApril 8, 2013

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 11: Brian Urlacher #54 of the Chicago Bears runs down Arian Foster #23 of the Houston Texans at Soldier Field on November 11, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Texans defeated the Bears 13-6. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The interest in former Chicago Bears' star linebacker Brian Urlacher has been minimal since the team announced they were going their separate ways in March, but he can still help a team.

Urlacher did not have a good season in 2012. Part of it may have been age, part of it may have been injury. We won't know for sure until he plays next season, but there is evidence that suggests he can still play.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Urlacher was the Bears' worst linebacker in 2012.  His overall grade was negative-11.2, as he missed a team-worst 10 tackles. However, he still graded out with a plus-6.7 in pass coverage, the third best mark for all inside linebackers.

In a passing league, it's hard to believe a linebacker who can cover isn't valuable.

Urlacher got off to a slow start last season, in part because he missed most of training camp after undergoing a procedure on his knee

He returned for the regular season opener against Indianapolis, but was rusty. He improved as the season progressed, something Bears general manager Phil Emery acknowledged in the Chicago Tribune before deciding to move on without the former star.

"There are times because of the injury that he had that early in the situation -- his ability to stop, regather himself and redirect laterally was not there, but it did get there as the season progressed, and just about as he was able to turn the corner he had the injury that ended his season," Emery said.

PFF supports what Emery saw. As Urlacher got healthier, his PFF grade (subscription required) improved.

Urlacher received a grade of negative-9.9 in the Bears' first six games, but was at minus-1.3 over the final six. His final six games also came against tougher competition, including four playoff teams—Houston, San Francisco, Minnesota and Seattle.

Although he struggled, there is reason to believe Urlacher is capable of being a starting linebacker. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller still has Urlacher among the 32 best inside linebackers in the league, ranking him 26th

Urlacher is no longer an elite athlete, but he can still make plays. He is still elite at diagnosing plays and has above average straight-line speed, as he showed against Seattle.

The above clip is from the Bears' Week 12 win over the Vikings. You see Urlacher read the play and chase down league MVP Adrian Peterson. Urlacher was flagged for a ticky-tack horse collar penalty on the play, but, had he not made it, it could've gone for a touchdown. That is the kind of play most middle linebackers would not be able to make.

At this point in his career, his major flaws are that he struggles changing directions and he isn't great at shedding blocks.

The first issue is something that may have been because of the knee injury. The second has always been a struggle for him, but the loss of athleticism has made it a bigger issue. He used to be able to use his speed to get by blockers, now they're able to get to him more often.

Although he's still excellent in coverage, his biggest strength is his leadership. He won't be able to lead a new locker room like he led the Bears, but Urlacher's resume will command respect no matter where he ends up.

In an ideal world, Urlacher would sign with a contending team with a terrific defensive line, making it so he wouldn't have to shed as many blocks. It's hard to find a perfect fit, especially with much of the league playing 3-4 defenses. 

A dark horse team is the New York Giants. The Giants' linebackers struggled last season and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was an assistant on the Bears' coaching staff in 2005. However, they would likely make Urlacher compete for a job.

If the Vikings aren't able to get a linebacker in the draft, they could still pursue Urlacher and he would be an upgrade for them.

Other contenders that could use him in limited roles include New England and Seattle.

Whether Urlacher plays another down in the NFL remains to be seen. Even if he isn't an every-down linebacker anymore, there is plenty of evidence to support that he still has a lot to offer teams in need of a linebacker.

In a passing league, he's still among the best in the league at covering the middle of the field. Even with the deficiencies that have come through wear and tear, it's hard to believe that there isn't a contender who could use his talent and his leadership.