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Bear Necessities: O Line, Where Art Thou?

March 8, 2012
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By Ross Mitchell

*This article also appears at Fanified.com

The 2012 NFL Salary Cap Figures were released a few weeks ago and things look good for the Chicago Bears. The Bears figure to be major players in free agency once teams can begin negotiating with players on March 13th, much as they were two season ago when they spent over $100 million dollars on the likes of Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor, and Brandon Manumaleuna. And while two of those acquisitions did not pan out, the market this off-season seems to be tailor-made to stitch the flaws in the Bears preverbal fabric. That’s too many sewing metaphors. In total, the Bears an estimated $28 million dollars in cap space to play with. They have already spend $7.7 million on “franchising” running back Matt Forte, leaving just over $20.3 million dollars available, among the most in the league (though not nearly the estimated $67 million dollars the Buccaneers have at their disposal).

As I have previously stated, I am staunch advocate of the Bears signing Vincent Jackson to a long and lucrative of a deal. With the San Diego Chargers choosing not to franchise Jackson, he will hit the market as the most sought after free agent not named Peyton Manning. Sources familiar with the market involved in the Jackson hunt have said multiple teams, including the Bears, the Buccaneers, the New England Patriots, the Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, the Washington Redskins, and the division rival Minnesota Vikings. Jackson made $11.4 million in 2011 (which is roughly $11.5 million more than I made) and is seeking in the ballpark of $13 million per season. A more realistic number is $12 million, though don’t be surprised if a team like the Buccaneers meet Jackson’s demands.

Regardless of where Jackson signs however the Bears will have more than enough cap space to address an area which has plagued the franchise (and quarterback Jay Cutler’s health) since left tackle John Tait and left guard Reuben Brown retired; offensive line. While I feel the Bears should spend most of their effort on upgrading the receiving corps both in free agency and early in the NFL Draft, there is no doubt in my mind that they need to address the big uglies up front as well. Lets take a quick look at the offensive line where it stands right now:

*Note: Brad Biggs of The Chicago Sun Times release a more comprehensive list on February 21st, 2012. You can view the list by clicking here.

Returning:

Tackles: Gabe Carimi; Lance Louis; J’Marcus Webb; Levi Horn; Perry Dorrestein

Center/Guards: Roberto Garza; Chris Spencer; Chris Williams; Edwin Wiliams; Ricky Henry

Not Returning: Frank Omiyale. Happy. Day.

Now the bad news: the Bears seem content with their current starting lineup. They feel the line made significant strides as the season progressed. They feel another off-season under the tutelage of Mike Tice and new offensive-line coach Tim Holt will advance this groups ability to protect Cutler and open running lanes for Forte in leaps-and-bounds. This is also the same group of coaches who allowed Chris Harris to walk into the Detroit Lions open arms, thought Roy Williams was the answer at wide receiver, and has opened the season with a different pair of starting safeties every season under Lovie Smith. Quick tangent:

With the exception of Charles Tillman, the rest of the secondary is a revolving door. That’s not to say that the Bears can plug-in any Joe off the street and make him a competent defensive back. It’s saying that they have had plenty of opportunity to correct this area of weakness and has failed to do so. Why does that sound familiar? Oh right (see wide receiver, offensive line, defensive end, Jerry Angelo era). As much as I want the Bears to draft a player like Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd or Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff at nineteen in the coming draft, I have no problem with them finally solidifying the secondary with a playmaking safety such as Alabama’s Mark Barron or South Carolina’s Antonio Allen. The draft also features four high quality cornerbacks who will be selected in the early rounds (LSU’s Morris Claiborne, Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick, Nebraska’s Alfonzo Dennard, and North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkings, who used to star at Florida). Again, the Bears are content with the talent they have in the defensive backfield and I am content with keeping a bottle of Johnny Walker on my bedside table.

I will admit there is some hope up front. Gabe Carimi, albeit in limited action, has the potential to be a mainstay at the Pro-Bowl (if the NFL doesn’t cancel the event altogether). Roberto Garza provided leadership and stability after a few nauseating early season outings against the Saints and Lions. Chris Spencer was consistent and at times excellent after inexplicably starting the season on the bench. Lance Louis showed a mean streak and flexibility, playing steadily at both tackle and guard, and Edwin Williams filled in nicely for Chris Williams when he went down with a season ending wrist-injury. J’Marcus Webb on the other hand led all left tackles with 18 sacks allowed. He did respond to me on Twitter however, so he’s not all bad…unless he’s on the field.

But take a good hard analytical look at who the Bears currently employee and who is on the free agent market. Would you rather have Chris Williams at left guard or New Orleans Saints free agent Carl Nicks? Do you trust Gabe Carimi’s knees when he has a history of injuries dating back to his time at the University of Wisconsin? Is Garza getting too old? Does it bother anyone else that he doesn’t have an ACL in one of his knees? Are we prepared to entrust Cutler’s blindside to Webb for another sixteen games (potentially more)?

Explore a few free-agent options here (in no particular order):

1. Chris Williams is set to make $2.51 million in 2012, the last year of his rookie contract. A modest price for a player who showed improvement after moving inside to play left guard. Much as Robert Gallery did for the Oakland Raiders (and now the Seattle Seahawks), Williams was never able to be the bookend tackle the Bears had envisioned with they selected him 14th overall in the 2008 NFL draft, but has adapted to an role on the interior line. Chris Spencer, whom the Bears had envisioned replacing former Center Olin Kreutz, is scheduled to make $4.25 million in 2012. Spencer is proven at both center and guard and often looked like the most talented blocker on the Bears offensive line. With the amount of cap space the Bears have, would it make sense for them to cut one of the Chrises and make a play at Carl Nicks?

Nicks has said he wants more money than former teammate Jahri Evans (who signed a seven year, $56.7 million deal in 2010). Again, that is what he wants, not necessarily what he will get. If the Bears cut either Williams or Spencer, they have $23.25-$25 million dollars in cap space, respectively. If they spend $12 million oer year on Vincent Jackson and $6.5 million per year on Nicks, they add two Pro Bowlers and still have $4.85-$6.5 available to them. If they fail to sign Jackson, that number again nears the $20 million mark. Could they entice Nicks’ teammate Marques Colston to join him in Chicago?

2. The Bears make signing a left tackle their primary off season focus. While this doesn’t necessarily mean they will be out of the Vincent Jackson hunt, offensive tackles garner more financial commitment than a guard or center would. While the tackle market is thin, Jared Gaither of the Chargers is an unrestricted free agent. Gaither is a great talent and would be a tremendous upgrade over any of the Bears current linemen. San Diego does not want to lose him, however, and is prepared to cut tackle Marcus McNeil in order to create cap space to retain Gaither’s services. This could be a perfect storm for the Chargers, losing both Gaither to another team and McNeal in an effort to keep Gaither.

I’d be thrilled if the Bears signed McNeal, but again this will prove to be costly. McNeal is a former Pro Bowler himself and would be a great fit for any team looking for help on the offensive line.

3. The Bears cut J’Marcus Webb and no one bats an eye.

Personally I’d be in favor of signing McNeal. He is the most affordable option at the position of greatest need. McNeal leaves the Bears with plenty of cap space to still make a viable push for Jackson or any of the other wide receivers on the market. And understand, I don’t think Vincent Jackson is the end-all-be-all wide receiver everyone in the NFL strives to emulate. But he is an elite wide receiver and would provide the greatest influx of talent at the position the Bears need the most help.

Other free agent offensive linemen the Bears could target are:

Demetrius Bell, Tackle, Buffalo; Levi Brown, Tackle, Arizona (expected to be released, $6 million roster bonus due on March 12th); Chad Clifton, Tackle, Green Bay (expected to be released); Steve Hutchinson, Guard, Minnesota.

Everyone in that group has issues of age, durability, and declining ability, but none-the-less worth looking into.

The final possibility the Bears have is the aforementioned NFL Draft. This years draft has been lauded by experts and scouts alike as one of the deepest offensive line classes in the past five years, perhaps longer. USC’s Matt Kalil has been graded in the same caliber as Cleveland’s Joe Thomas and Miami’s Jake Long. Most, if not all mock drafts have him going within the top five overall draft picks. Iowa’s Riley Reiff and Stanford’s Jonathan Martin rank eighth and ninth respectfully on Mel Kiper‘s Big Board (the Bears selecting Reiff at nineteen is wishful thinking). And guards David DeCastro of Stanford, Cordy Glenn of Georgia (who can also play tackle), and Wisconsin Badgers Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler give real credence to those who project upwards four guards taken in the first forty picks. Depth personified.

For the Bears, everything ultimately boils down to left tackle. I was tongue-and-cheek earlier regarding Webb, but lets face facts: he struggles against good-to-elite level talent when tasked with one-on-one blocking assignments. He often gets confused with protection schemes and had a team high fifteen false start penalties. He also allowed an NFL worst 38 pressures. Could he improve? Yes. Do I want to bank the 2012 season on it when there are so many other avenues the Bears could take? Not at all.

Moving Chris Williams back to tackle and placing either Edwin Williams, Lance Louis, Chris Spencer, a free agent, or a rookie offensive lineman gives me more peace-of-mind than another season with Webb. Switching Gabe Carimi to left tackle and tasking Louis, who played well in 2011, at right tackle maximizes the talent the Bears have now without having to sign or draft anyone else. Even starting a draft choice in the place of Webb has more promise and gives Cutler more comfort than what they have now. I can’t stress this enough, J’Marcus Webb is not a starting left tackle. He isn’t a starting right tackle. They gave him a fair chance, he didn’t get the job done.

Sir Winston Churchill once said, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. As they have so many times in the past the Bears seem content to float down the river riding a piece of driftwood while a raft is within arm’s reach. The deck is stacked for the Bears to acquire depth and talent on the offensive line. Will they sink or swim? Will they seize the opportunity or will they doom themselves by standing pat? Here’s hoping Phil Emery is an advocate of taking note of the past.

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