Any time a veteran player suffers an injury that wipes out virtually an entire season, and he's on the wrong side of 30, it's worth examining the financial impact moving forward.
No one is suggesting Brian Urlacher, who is 31, is in danger because of his salary. But the middle linebacker received a unique one-year contract extension last summer. I say unique because it's rare for a player to have one year tacked on to his contract when still has four years remaining on his current contract. That's what happened though, and it was a tense few months as Urlacher dug in his heels and the organization wondered exactly what path it was headed down with the face of the franchise.
In the end, Urlacher received an $18 million, one-year extension through 2012 with $6 million guaranteed in the form of a signing bonus. Let's take a look at his remaining base salaries:
Age 31 2009 $5.625 million
Age 32 2010 $6.825 million
Age 33 2011 $8.025 million
Age 34 2012 $7.5 million
That's $27.975 million, including the pay he will receive this season. In today's NFL, that's in line with what elite veterans receive. Original negotiations for Urlacher last spring offered him the signing bonus, the $7.5 million in base pay for 2012, and then $1 million in the form of a likely to be earned bonus each season from 2008 through 2011. Urlacher just had to play in 85 percent of the defensive snaps each season to trigger the bonus. Negotiations dragged on, Urlacher threatened to miss minicamp (he didn't) and training camp. It didn't come to that as the team acquiesced in mid-July and simply tacked an extra $1 million on each season without a play-time provision. Urlacher was all smiles, the club was relieved and life moved on.
The Bears are unlikely to have a problem continuing with this contract if Urlacher returns to dominant form. He was not dominant the last two seasons when he battled back and neck ailments. Solid? Yes. Elite? No. The Bears cannot say they are missing a Pro Bowl linebacker because Urlacher has not been at that level since 2006. So, he will return next season at age 32 scheduled to earn $6.825 million. I am sure the Bears will do that without blinking. It's how Urlacher performs in 2010 that will determine what happens when the salary climbs over $8 million in 2011.
Knowing Urlacher, he will be in top shape when training camp opens next summer. He knows the challenges athletes face to remain in top form as they get older. He's found out about those challenges for three years running now. It's tough to stay put together because eventually freak injuries occur to everyone.