On Wednesday, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher elected to call it a career and announced his retirement from the NFL. Urlacher's retirement had little fanfare. The offseason began with his departure from the Bears after 13 seasons, haggling over a free agent deal.
Urlacher wanted to play another season in the NFL, but he had nothing left to prove. Over the course of his 13 seasons, Urlacher was elected to the Pro Bowl eight times. That season, Urlacher was returning from a wrist injury that saw him miss 15 games, but he led the team with a whopping 146 tackles and didn't look at all like he'd slowed down.
He was 32 that season. He was also named an All-Pro for his fifth time. At 34 years-old today, many felt Urlacher still had some production left in him, but there wasn't much interest on the free agent market, which could also be attributed to a strong rookie linebacker class coming into the league.
He was the NFL defensive rookie of the year way back in 2000, and the Associated Press NFL defensive player of the year in 2005. He was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade team and, again, had those eight Pro Bowl appearances, including three years straight from his rookie season in 2000 through the 2003 season.
Widely regarded as one of the best coverage linebackers in the game, Urlacher prided himself on being able to stay with any tight end in the league while still being big and punishing with his physicality. He finished his career with 1,353 tackles, 41.5 quarterback sacks and 22 interceptions.
All of these numbers on top of the fact that he's been a defensive leader his entire career and that he'll go down as one of the most well-loved Bears players of all time mean that Urlacher should be on his way to a Hall of Fame enshrinement in Canton. Most have figured Urlacher is a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame for some years now, and we're certainly not going to argue against that.
But is he a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
There are multiple answers to that question. On one hand, his credentials line up with what makes a first-ballot Hall of Famer. On the other hand, there will be some heavy competition when Urlacher's name first comes up for vote.
Longtime Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis also retired this season. Lewis has a pair of Super Bowls to his name, which is where he has a definite leg up on Urlacher. Whoever you think was better in their prime is inconsequential to the argument, as Lewis has as many Pro Bowls as Urlacher does seasons in the NFL. That's 13 Pro Bowls, to go along with his seven times as a first team All-Pro and three times as a second team All Pro and his two AP NFL defensive player of the year votes.
Lewis is the embodiment of the Ravens, and given the lack of linebackers already in the Hall of Fame -- there are only 24, and that includes outside pass rushers -- it's hard to see both Urlacher and Lewis making it, and in a head-to-head situation, Lewis will almost certainly get the nod. To top off that argument, Urlacher isn't even the best middle linebacker to ever play for the Bears -- that honor goes to Mike Singletary.
But even if you subtract the middle linebacker head-to-head, there's still some stiff competition for Urlacher. Ronde Barber, the longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback, called it a career this offseason. He's one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game and seems a candidate for first-ballot status.
If wide receiver Randy Moss doesn't find a new team, then he'll be retired, and how can you argue with 982 catches, 15,292 yards and 156 touchdowns? There are plenty of wide receivers still waiting to hear their names called, but Moss eclipses them easily. There is also guard Steve Hutchinson, who is possibly the best guard to ever play football. He retired this offseason as well.
There are so many names that could make it when Urlacher becomes eligible. Since 1990, 40 players have made it on their first year of eligibility, and three first-year players have been enshrined all in one year on five occasions since that time. Unfortunately, with the players above, there might be three players ahead of Urlacher.
He'll make it into the Hall, but first-ballot status sure is questionable.