Lock up Cutler, Urlacher – after the season

Two stars will determine what they should earn

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BOURBONNAIS — Brandon Marshall and Shea McClellin are not the only notable newcomers to the Bears' offensive and defensive meetings rooms.

There is an elephant in the offensive meeting room — the contract situation of Jay Cutler.

And there is an elephant in the defensive meeting room — the contract situation of Brian Urlacher.

For now, those big boys are being left alone, and should be. The time to acknowledge them will come after the season.

Cutler and Urlacher are in very different situations.

Cutler, 29, has two years left on his deal and the Bears would undoubtedly like to lock him up before free agency and the franchise tag become unpleasant issues.

Urlacher, 34, is in the last year of his contract and is facing the possibility of finishing his career wearing a helmet with stripes, horns, a feline, or even a G on the side.

The Bears need to do what they can to ensure that does not happen.

But they need to do it in January or February, after seeing how he handles a 13th season of wear and tear coming off a knee injury.

Some might suspect Phil Emery was brought to Chicago in part to put on the black hat and get rid of Urlacher.

"That's not my plan," the general manager told me. "My plan is to say: 'Let's perform on the field and then we'll address it at the time it needs to be addressed.' "

Sometimes executives and coaches blow public kisses at long-tenured veterans, but privately they can't wait to put their belongings in a trash bag and have security escort them out of the building. Emery assures me this is not the case with Urlacher.

The intangibles with Urlacher are excellent. So the question will be where he is physically.

With players his age, it's typical to see deterioration as the season goes on. Emery said he didn't see that in Urlacher's play through the course of last season, but allowed that Urlacher, like most of the defenders, may have been less effective late in the year because the Bears' offensive issues forced them to be on the field longer.

Emery compares Urlacher to 37-year-old Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, whom he studied on tape just before camp opened. "Certainly (Lewis') physical tools in terms of his burst and range as a player have diminished some," Emery said. "But not his savvy. It's only gotten better. He knows a lot of times where the ball is going before the quarterback does. That's what makes him continue to be a high quality NFL starter.

"And I see the same thing in Brian. What I see is a guy who still has very good range. It's changed from excellent or rare to very good. When he came into the league, it was rare. To me it's still very good. There isn't a play he can't make."

Like Lewis, Urlacher might make more plays now than he once did because of understanding and patience and fewer because of athleticism and speed. This is when playing for nine years in the same system can really pay off.

The issue with Cutler is whether or not he will reach the level of excellence Urlacher has.

The Bears are reasonably sure they want Cutler around for the long term. But to lock up Cutler now, they would need to pay him elite quarterback money. That means $16 million or more annually.

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