During free agency last offseason, Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery was a busy man, signing numerous veterans to fill out his roster. This year, with 18 unrestricted free agents, one restricted free agent and one restricted rights free agent, Emery will again have his hands full once free agency begins on March 12.
Three of those UFAs are linebackers: Brian Urlacher, Nick Roach and Geno Hayes. Urlachers' age (35) and recent knee problems could mean he's played his last game in Chicago. Even if the Bears re-sign him, it will be a short-term deal and he won't ever again play at his once-elite level.
As such, Emery has to begin thinking long-term. With Roach, it makes sense to bring him back, considering his experience in Chicago's 4-3 and his versatility, having played both middle (MIKE) and strong-side (SAM) linebacker. He's not a game-changer but Roach has shown his value as a solid, dependable and flexible linebacker.
The decision on whether or not to keep Hayes, who was one of the free agents Emery signed last March, is a bit tougher. A former sixth-round draft pick in 2008, Hayes spent his first four seasons in Tampa Bay, starting 32 games for the Buccaneers, mostly at SAM. When his rookie contract expired, the Bucs let him walk.
LB Geno Hayes
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty
With the Bears, Hayes was the club's fourth linebacker. He played both strong and weak side in training camp, working mainly with the starters while Urlacher recovered from a knee scope. He was active for all but one game in 2012 and started three of the final four contests after Urlacher was placed on IR with a hamstring pull.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Hayes played 141 snaps last season, and had a positive overall grade. Officially, he had 16 total tackles and two passes defended. As a pass rusher on the blitz, he graded very low, while his grade against the run was his highest.
His run grade is surprising, as he truly struggled in that area when he was with the Bucs. In 2011, his grade against the run was second worst in the league amongst 4-3 outside linebackers. Yet in Chicago, he was adequate stopping the run, while also performing well in pass coverage, his strong suite.
So did Hayes do enough last year to earn a new contract with the Bears? The answer to that depends on what his role will be going forward. If Emery lands a big-name linebacker in free agency, and then drafts a high-round linebacker, then Hayes makes a lot of sense. He could then provide veteran depth, as either the third or fourth linebacker, depending on the development of the rookie. In that role, he'd be perfect.
But if you're looking for Hayes to be the long-term answer on the strong side, then it's time to re-think your strategy. While he improved against the run in 2012, the sample size, three games, was too small to say whether that was a trend or a fluke. If he reverts to his pre-2012 form, he'll be a liability stopping the run. And he's never played MIKE, so he's not an option to replace Urlacher down the line.
Hayes is versatile and strong in coverage but he's not an NFL starter. In a backup role, working under a relatively cheap contract, he could have a long future with the Bears. But to pay him starter money and insert him as the team's strong-side linebacker of the future would be a mistake.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.