By Bucky Brooks
May 22, 2008

• The looming showdown between the Bears and six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher is generating great interest among league observers.

Urlacher, who enters the season as the league's fourth-highest paid linebacker, has failed to show up for voluntary workouts and is expected to miss the team's minicamp later this month due to his dissatisfaction with his current contract.

He contends that not only has he outperformed his contract given his perennial status as one of the game's top linebackers, but also that the dramatic increase in the league's salary cap ($75 million to $116 million) since 2003 has lessened the significance of his nine-year, $54 million deal. Under the terms of the deal, Urlacher is scheduled to receive a combined $9 million over the next two years before his salary jumps to $7.5 million in 2010 and $9.0 million in 2011 with $1.3 million roster bonuses in each of those years.

However, the underlying issue that may explain his sudden push for a new deal is that the signing bonus acceleration expires in 2010 (under the previous collective bargaining agreement, signing bonuses could be prorated over a maximum of seven years), and the Bears could release him without facing salary cap ramifications at that point. Furthermore, he will be 32 in 2010, and his recent history of back and neck issues are major concerns considering the physical nature of his position.

"I wouldn't be on board with signing him to a big money deal considering his age and injury history," said an NFC personnel executive. "At this point, you need to identify and start grooming his replacement."

In spite of the risk factors, the Bears have reportedly offered Urlacher an extension that features a $5 million signing bonus with $1 million increases to his base salary in the remaining years of the deal. With the Bears also attempting to lock up Tommie Harris and Devin Hester this offseason, it will be interesting to see if Urlacher and the team can find common ground on an extension.

• With reports coming out of Cleveland of an expanded role for Pro Bowl return specialist Josh Cribbs, it appears the Browns are the latest team attempting to maximize the big-play skills of a dynamic returner on offense. Cribbs, who led the league in kickoff return average (30.7) last season, is logging more snaps at receiver during workouts as the team experiments with more ways to get the ball in his hands.

Although the notion of using a returner as an offensive threat appears to be a good one, it rarely has a significant impact on the offense and often minimizes the effectiveness of the player in the return game. Dante Hall was the last Pro Bowl returner to be incorporated fully into the offense, but he failed to make a significant offensive impact for the Chiefs and his returns suffered due to the increased workload.

Cribbs doesn't figure to log significant snaps at receiver with Braylon Edwards, Donte Stallworth and Joe Jurevicius on the roster, but the Browns must be careful not to overwork the him. As the league's top kick returner and the Browns' leader in special teams tackles, Cribbs' impact in the kicking game is far more significant than any production he can provide on offense.

Odell Thurman's release at the beginning of the week shows that Marvin Lewis is serious about regaining control of the Bengals' locker room. Lewis has parted ways with several players with off-field issues this offseason (including Chris Henry and Quincy Wilson), and his hard-line stance with Chad Johnson shows that the coach is taking a tougher stance. The Bengals have underperformed the past two seasons and team chemistry issues have largely contributed to the spotty play. Thus, Lewis is showing little patience in dealing with players who are not on board with the team's raised standard of accountability.

Although Thurman's decision to tend to family matters after the death of his grandmother is understandable, his reluctance to return to Cincinnati in a timely manner for voluntary workouts left Lewis little choice. Lewis had strongly encouraged all of his players to take part in the team's "voluntary" workouts during the offseason, and with Thurman attempting to shake off the rust from a two-year layoff, his prolonged absence from the team was inexcusable in the eyes of the team (especially if he failed to communicate with Lewis while he was away from the team). While treatment of Thurman appears to be harsh in this situation, it was hardly surprising given all of the circumstances.

Kassim Osgood's holdout is one of the most puzzling situations of the offseason. Osgood, a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a special teamer, is currently boycotting the Chargers' offseason program due to his unhappiness with his role on the team.

Though Osgood has 32 career receptions, he has only two receptions in the past two seasons and has rarely been a part of the Chargers' multiple receiver sets in recent years. Plus, the Chargers are pretty set at the position with Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson, Craig Davis, Eric Parker, Legedu Naanee and Malcolm Floyd ranked ahead of Osgood on the depth chart. Thus, it makes little sense that the six-year veteran is chirping about a bigger role on offense.

"Players need to be honest in their assessment of their own abilities," said an NFC scout. "The kid is only in the league because of his ability to excel on special teams and he needs to realize that before he messes up a great situation."

The Chargers recognized Osgood as one of the league's top special teamers and rewarded him with a four-year contract worth nearly $4 million, with additional bonuses tied to Pro Bowl appearances. With two years remaining on that deal and a general manager (A.J. Smith) who doesn't cave in to players' demands, Osgood should embrace his role on the team and end his futile quest to be a bigger part of the game plan.

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