CHICAGO – The alarm bells first sounded almost five years ago.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was getting older. So was Pro Bowl teammate Lance Briggs.
Yet as the Bears prepare for the 2012 season, neither player has shown signs of slowing down.
The Bears could add a young linebacker in the NFL draft that begins Thursday and continues through Saturday, but it appears doubtful they will address the position in Round 1.
Urlacher, who will be 34 in May, and Briggs, who turns 32 in November, anchor a linebacking corps that includes incumbent starter Nick Roach.
Meanwhile, free-agent acquisitions Geno Hayes and Blake Costanzo could push Roach for playing time.
Besides, Bears general manager Phil Emery said his veteran stars didn’t look so old.
“Who you have on your roster is always a consideration [in the draft],” Emery said. “But I still see a productive defense, and that’s the most important thing.”
Emery said veterans such as Urlacher and Briggs passed every item on his checklist.
“To use an athletic term: Do they still have juice?” Emery said. “Do they still have legs? Do they still have burst? Can they still get to the ball? So, yeah, [age] is a consideration, but I see players on our defense that still have that burst, that are producing.”
The most coveted linebacker in the draft is Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, who reeled off a 33-game streak with double-digit tackles from 2009-11. Kuechly is expected to be drafted before the Bears’ selection at No. 19, but if not he would offer an intriguing option.
NFL Network draft analyst Michael Lombardi said Kuechly was a well-rounded player.
“I think Luke Kuechly is a guy who everybody feels like is a ‘safe’ pick,” Lombardi said during a draft preview show. “He can come in and he can really help your team. He can play in the red zone and he can cover. Most linebackers, if they can’t cover, become a problem.”
Another option is Boise State’s Shea McClellin, who has emerged as a likely first-round pick. Most experts have pegged McClellin as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, but his ability to play multiple positions could appeal to Emery.
“He’s just so versatile, first of all,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said on a recent conference call. “You watch a game and you’re going to see him at defensive end, outside linebacker, then he’s standing up playing inside linebacker.
“I think as the season progressed, at least from what I could tell, he kind of got more natural in that versatile role doing different things. To me, I like his motor, I like his toughness, and I think that he really has potential to be an impact pass rusher.”