When Brian Urlacher first established himself as the Bears' middle linebacker, he was playing between pretty solid players in Rosevelt Colvin and Warrick Holdman.
The trio had a good bond. Young and not yet savvy to the realities of the business side of the game, they figured to be playing alongside each other for the bulk of their careers. After three years starting together, Colvin departed via free agency. Not long after that, Holdman's effectiveness slipped, leading the Bears to select Lance Briggs in the third round of the 2003 draft.
As close as Urlacher might have been with Colvin and Holdman — and they got along fabulously — the friendship he developed with Briggs was special. That's why it was difficult for Briggs to talk about Urlacher this offseason after the 35-year-old turned down the Bears' take-it-or-leave it offer and decided to retire.
The face of the franchise is gone and Briggs enters his 11th season knowing he has to be a major part of making up for that. It was Briggs who approached the coaching staff about calling the defensive signals this season, a job typically held by the middle linebacker. Making it even more challenging, veteran Nick Roach, a mainstay on the strong side, also left for a lucrative deal to become the Raiders' middle linebacker.
It's an opportunity for Briggs, who turns 33 in November, to take his career to a different level. The Bears ranked third in points allowed and fifth in yards in 2012. To keep that lofty status will be difficult.
Urlacher wasn't anything close to his Pro Bowl prime last season, and Roach was a two-down player who was steady but not spectacular. But swapping out two-thirds of a unit is a challenge when you're trying to remain a playoff contender. Consider over the last 10 seasons the Bears used a total of 15 starting linebackers. Urlacher, Briggs, Roach and Hunter Hillenmeyer accounted for 415 of the 461 total starts for the three positions. That's stability that is now gone.
"Lance has been fantastic," new linebackers coach Tim Tibesar said. "I've got a lot of respect for him and what he's been able to do. I am here to try to help him in any way that I can. What Lance does on the field isn't going to be because of how I coached him. I just hope I don't get in his way and have him keep performing at the level he's been performing at. I've certainly leaned on him to help me learn the system ... and he's embraced that. He's welcomed me and then he's helped out in our meeting rooms. ... That's what I asked him to do and he's more than willing to do it."
Preview: New to the mix are veterans D.J. Williams and James Anderson, slated to start in the middle and on the strong side, respectively. But the Bears backed up the addition of 30-something players on one-year contracts by using a second-round pick on Florida's Jon Bostic and a fourth-round pick on Rutgers' Khaseem Greene.
Anderson, who started for the last 31/2 seasons for the Panthers, was a tackling machine in Carolina, totaling 275 in 2010 and 2011. Coaches were impressed with him throughout the spring, but his durability is a question mark. He didn't always hold up as well late in the season in Carolina. Williams started for eight seasons in Denver before playing in seven games and making only one start last year. He had led the Broncos in tackles in four of the previous five seasons but was suspended for nine games in 2012 for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and being convicted of drunken driving. The Broncos released him in March.
So Anderson and Williams are in place, but if Bostic and/or Greene can force their way into the starting lineup at some point this season, it would bode well for the future of the defense. They're not going to be handed jobs, but they're considered building blocks.
After the three veterans and two rookies there should be a spot, maybe two if someone really stands out. Veteran Blake Costanzo was signed as a special teams ace a year ago and likely will remain in that role. Jerry Franklin, J.T. Thomas and Patrick Trahan all have limited experience.
"The interesting thing is really the only guy that has been around here a long time is Briggs," Tibesar said, adding that Williams and Anderson "have come out and worked their tails off and are really showing the young guys how to go."
Glass half-full: The Bears are expecting solid contributions from Williams and Anderson, but general manager Phil Emery's draft class will get a boost if at least one of the rookies can log significant playing time. Briggs continues to play at a high level and will help new coordinator Mel Tucker's transition.
Glass half-empty: Briggs is not the same athlete he was when the Bears made a Super Bowl run in 2006. Urlacher's real value last season was ensuring everyone was lined up correctly. That may be a bigger issue than anyone expects.
Coaching change: Tibesar is in the NFL for the first time after working under Marc Trestman in Montreal and making a series of college stops. He knows former linebackers coach Bob Babich well. Tibesar was a linebackers coach at North Dakota when Babich was the head coach at rival North Dakota State.
"I kept in contact with him over the years ... and he has been great helping me out as well, transitioning and giving me a little insight what the room was like coming in here," Tibesar said.
Bottom line: The Bears defense will look vastly different in another two or three years. Linebacker is the first position group going through a makeover on the fly. There are bound to be some bumps in the road.
Wednesday: Tight ends