- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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An unrestricted free agent with a combined 59 starts at strong side and middle linebacker over the past five seasons, Roach is scheduled to the test the open market for really the first time in his six-year NFL career when the free agent negotiating period begins on March 9. Teams can begin to sign unrestricted free agents from other teams starting at 3 p.m. CT on March 12.
The Bears are not believed to have made Roach an official offer to return, but a league source told ESPNChicago.com the club wants to re-sign the 27-year-old linebacker.
Although Roach agreed to a two-year, $4.5 million free agent deal with the Bears in the summer of 2011, that free agency period came on the heels of the NFL lockout when teams were scrambling to fill out their rosters in time for the beginning of training camp.
"Basically last time the negotiating window was really small," Roach told ESPNChicago on Friday. "So it wasn't the normal kind of free agency. This time around, I'm just looking to be fairly compensated for whatever my role is going to be. I've never been the kind of guy looking to break the bank, or make a statement. That's not me. I just want fair pay for the job I'm going to be called on to do.
"The most important thing is knowing the organization respects you and the job you do. Then it's up to the agent and the organization to make it happen. But the big thing is having the respect of your employer. That respect is usually reflected in the type of offer that is eventually made."
There could be competition for Roach's services once his agent is allowed to talk to other teams. The key point when breaking down Roach's NFL body of work is the fact he's essentially been a two-down linebacker for much of his career. Unlike the middle and weak-side linebacker positions in the Bears' defense, the strong side linebacker comes off the field in passing downs in favor of the nickel cornerback.
Because of the Bears' substitution pattern, Roach participated in fewer than 50 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season in games versus the St. Louis Rams (43 percent), Detroit Lions (29 percent), Dallas Cowboys (39 percent), Jacksonville Jaguars (43 percent) and Tennessee Titans (47 percent).
Despite that limited playing time, Roach still managed to finish sixth on the Bears with 84 tackles and tied for third with five tackles-for-loss, which begs the question: What kind of level of production would Roach provide a team if he stayed on the field for 100 percent of the defensive snaps?
"To be honest, I don't really concern myself much with the fact I've been primarily a two-down linebacker here in Chicago," Roach said. "For me to think about that or feel that I'm underutilized, that would be disrespectful to Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Those are Pro Bowl players, some would argue future Hall of Famers. They deserve to be on the field. For me, I'm just try to play my role to the best of my ability.
"When you come into the league undrafted like I did out of Northwestern in 2007, you take whatever you can get. If they ask you to play special teams, you play special teams. If they want you to be the strong-side linebacker, you be the strong-side linebacker. It's up to them what kind of value they place on you. Once I'm given a role, that's all I focus on. I just want to play that role the best I possibly can. I love playing linebacker. I loved playing special teams. And of course, I loved my time at middle linebacker when I had to fill in when Brian went down."
The Bears turned to Roach late last year to handle the middle linebacker spot after Urlacher suffered what turned out to be a season-ending hamstring strain against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 2. While the Bears played themselves out of a playoff spot, Roach did a respectable job in the middle where he recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Week 16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
"Of course I wish I could have made more plays and we would have won more games down the stretch, but I thought it went alright in the middle," Roach said. "I definitely feel it was a big improvement over the last time I had to fill in for Brian in 2009. My communication definitely got better on the field. I was more decisive, that's for sure. And I had a better feel for what to do if the calls got sent in late, where people were supposed to be, how they were supposed to react, and all that kind of stuff. But that comes from experience. I'm a veteran now. I feel like I've grown not just as a pure player, but also as a leader. I'm better with the intangibles. All those characteristics are so important in such a leadership role like middle linebacker."
Roach said he briefly met new Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker during a visit to Halas Hall earlier in the offseason, but that Tucker was unable to speak at length about what role he envisioned for Roach on defense because Tucker and the rest of the coaching staff were about to head into meetings.
But it's not difficult to envision the Bears expanding Roach's role if they re-sign him. Even if the organization finds a way to bring back Urlacher, Roach's ability to run might make him a candidate to remain on the field in passing downs in 2013, perhaps at the expense of an older player like Urlacher, since Roach has plenty of experience at middle linebacker in the Bears' nickel package.
It would also not be a surprise if other teams in need of help at linebacker view Roach as more than a customary two-down linebacker, which would raise his value in free agency.
Roach pocketed a $1.715 million base salary in 2012, a number that figures to increase this upcoming season.
"I can't stress this enough, it's all about feeling like the people you work for respect the job you do," Roach said. "If that happens, everything else tends to take care of itself."