LINK to the article Get ready for Urlacher, the `freak' of the 2000 draft
The question, "What is he?" has not been asked with this degree of frequency since Tiger Woods found fame. So what is Brian Urlacher, one of the top defensive players available in next month's draft?
Well, if he were a musical instrument, he'd be a synthesizer, capable of playing any part the bandleader might call for. In normal mode for New Mexico last season, he was a free safety. He made All-American and averaged 14 tackles a game.
Press a button and he became an inside linebacker. He started there two previous seasons and played there sporadically last year. He was named defensive player of the game at that position in the Senior Bowl.
Flip this lever and he was a tight end, slot receiver or fullback. He caught seven of nine passes thrown to him last year, six for touchdowns.
Depress these keys, and he played punt and kick returner. He averaged 15.8 yards per punt return last year, which would have ranked eighth in the NCAA among qualifiers (Urlacher was four returns short of qualifying).
Hit this switch and he was a special teams gunner. "He amazed me with the effort and speed he went down the field with on special teams plays in the Senior Bowl," said Chiefs
coach Gunther Cunningham
, who presided over the South team on which Urlacher played. Cunningham was duly impressed with all phases of Urlacher's game.
In the NFL
, Urlacher will be either a weakside linebacker middle linebacker or strong safety. Most teams see him as a weakside linebacker because, at 6-3, 258 pounds, he looks no more like a safety than a Labrador looks like a terrier. But of the l0 teams who were surveyed by THE SPORTING NEWS, all of them still thought he could play safety.
After studying Urlacher, here is one vote to play him at strong safety. Urlacher casts another. While packing for a trip to Panama for spring break, he told me he'd like to stay in the secondary, but he realizes he'll probably be moving to linebacker. That's OK with him, too.
At his size, he would be the largest safety ever. Previously, the largest was David Fulcher, the one-time Pro Bowler who started at strong safety for the Bengals in Super Bowl 23. The biggest safeties in the league today are Larry Atkins of the Chiefs, who is 6-3, 235, and Scott Shields of the Steelers, who is 6-4, 228.
Saying a football player can be too big is like saying a model can be too beautiful, but Urlacher does not fit the safety mold. The prototype for a strong safety is about 215 pounds. "There are some parameters as to how big a safety can be because of the flexibility, athleticism, speed and range the position demands," said Bengals defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau
, the man who found the way to get the most out of Fulcher more than a decade ago. But the Jolly Green Giant could play safety if he could move like one. That's the key.
What makes Urlacher so unique is his mass-to-speed ratio. A player with a similar mass-to-speed ratio is Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse, a k a "The Freak." Urlacher is that kind of freak. At the combine Urlacher ran a incredible 4.59 40-yard dash. That was second fastest among linebackers and ninth fastest among the 20 safeties who ran. Tennessee's Deon Grant, the top-rated safety in this year's draft, ran a 4.50 on a faster track. LeBeau said Fulcher was nowhere near as fast as Urlacher.
Urlacher's coach at New Mexico, Rocky Long, compares Urlacher to two NFL safeties he previously coached, Shaun Williams of the Giants and Reggie Tongue, now of the Seahawks. Long said Urlacher is faster than Williams and Tongue, but doesn't cover as well.
While cover ability is not Urlacher's strength, you wouldn't call it a weakness. He breaks on the ball quickly, as was evident when he tipped a pass that became an interception for teammate Rantie Harper in a game against Texas El-Paso. Urlacher gave up only one touchdown last season, but he acknowledges he has to improve his ability to backpedal, turn and run.
In order for Urlacher to play safety, he'd need the right scheme, one that keeps the safety close to the line of scrimmage and doesn't ask him to cover the slot receiver man-to-man, He'd be great in the Titans' defensive scheme, for instance. He'd also work well in a defense like the Bucs'.
In New Mexico's "Lobo" defense, Urlacher did not play a true free safety, tie usually lined up about 10 yards off the line in a three-deep zone and was responsible for the middle third of the field. That didn't prevent him from making a ton of plays at the line of scrimmage, though. "Once I made my read, and I saw that it was a run, I came downhill at full speed," Urlacher said.
The beauty of Urlacher at safety is he can affect more of' the field than he could at linebacker. His speed is put to better use at safety.
Either way, this is an outstanding run player. He reads quickly and is difficult to block. He's quick enough to slip a guard, like he did in the Senior Bowl against Indiana-Pa.'s Leander Jordan to tackle Oregon's Rueben Droughns. And he's powerful enough to run over a fullback and snap his head back, like he did when Rahsaan Sanders of Colorado State dared to get in his way on a sweep.
The pile stops moving when Urlacher gets there. He's a big hitter, a "water moccasin" in scouting parlance.
Having Urlacher on your defense would be like having a joker in your poker hand. He could be a linebacker on one down, a safety the next. He could be both. He could be neither. If Urlacher were used creatively, offenses never would be able to figure on what he would do. Jets defensive coordinator Mike Nolan points out you could line him up at linebacker and then drop him into a deep zone. "Anyone who plays an eight-man front has to like his versatility," Nolan says.
LeBeau envisions a defense using Urlacher the way the Bengals used Fulcher. "He would be a big plus in disguising coverages," he says. "He can defend half the field, or blitz, which is a problem for offenses because they don't know if he'll drop off. He'd be a tough matchup."
Urlacher's ambiguity eventually will be a strength, but it actually could cost him in the draft. Because he probably has not been playing the position he will play in the NFL, Urlacher, like Kearse last year, is labeled with the dreaded "projection" tag. And thus a trickle of doubt begins to flow. "That's the only negative," Cunningham says. "He needs to master a position." Still, Urlacher is expected to be selected no lower than mid-first round. Among the teams believed to be salivating for him are the Bears and Jets.
Put him in with the right defensive coordinator, and Urlacher should have the same kind of impact the last freak did.