The 2013 offseason has been marked by major overhauling of the Bears’ offensive line, with the signings of left tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Matt Slauson plus the use of a No. 1 draft choice on Kyle Long for a guard job.
The Bushrod addition facilitated moving oft-maligned J’Marcus Webb back to right tackle, the position he was thrust into as a rookie when Gabe Carimi was lost in week two to a season-ending knee injury.
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In the process, the Bears may have made their biggest single upgrade on the offensive line.
Not Bushrod. Webb.
Indeed, moving Webb to right tackle is no less significant than adding Bushrod to improve the left edge. The reasons are in the changing nature of the right-tackle position that has unfolded over recent years. More on that shortly.
Bushrod “vs.” Webb
Ironically perhaps, with both of them playing left tackle in 2012, Webb graded out better in 2012 in pass blocking than Bushrod, while the former Saint was the better run blocker, based on findings of ProFootballFocus.com. Bushrod was called for fewer penalties (six) better than Webb (eight).
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Using PFF’s numbers for purposes of apples-to-apples:
Bushrod netted a positive grade in the Saints’ one meeting with Green Bay; Webb struggled mightily at Green Bay but quietly had a positive game in Soldier Field.
Bushrod also posted a positive grade pass-blocking vs. the 49ers; Webb’s worst game of the year was against the 49ers.
On the other hand, Bushrod had his worst game against the Dallas Cowboys. Webb fared slightly better in both run and pass blocking.
The overall is that Bushrod is, in fact, a better left tackle than Webb. There is no record of Drew Brees railing at Bushrod, but in any case, the net is that the Bears improved their ability to keep evil-intentioned people from sneaking up on Jay Cutler’s blind side.
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What the Bears did at right tackle, however, was improve exponentially. And with the changing nature of NFL pass rushing, this becomes a potentially far greater gain than Bushrod-over-Webb at left tackle.
Carimi was the Bears’ worst offensive lineman in 2012, losing his job after the San Francisco debacle. Webb tied with guard Lance Louis, gone this offseason to Miami, for the best PFF grade. Jonathan Scott was an improvement over Carimi, but was second only to Carimi for worst-pass-protector “honors” among Bears linemen.
Webb rated a plus-0.4 from PFF. Scott was a minus-7.9 in his limited duty; Carimi a minus-19.9.
Signing Bushrod upgraded left tackle. Moving Webb to right tackle upgrades that position exponentially more.
Why that matters is because right tackle isn’t what it used to be.
Former Bears GM Jerry Angelo laid out the basic thinking behind staffing the tackle positions, particularly the rights, with mastodons: You need pure mass simply to deal first with the bull rush, a basic worry at any spot on the offensive line.
Along with that, however, has been the notion that most teams are “right-handed,” meaning they need a mauler at right tackle for a run game.
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Running the football will always factor into success. But staffing a right-tackle spot based on running the ball is living in the past with a game tilted toward passing and, by extension, pass-blocking.
“Maybe they need to have some bulk,” Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz told CSNChicago.com last week at the second annual “Pro Football Hall of Fame Salute to Greatness.” “But it’s still a matter of sitting down and using your hands and having strength.
“With the weight programs they have in college and even in high school and continuing that in the pros, they don’t have to be 330, 340.”
Bushrod is 315 pounds. Webb is 333. Yet Webb is not a mauler, and he in fact is a better pass blocker than a run blocker. In the modern NFL, that looms large.
“J’Marcus has had good games at left tackle, but Bushrod is the better athlete with the better feet so we’re going to put him out there [at left],” said Bears GM Phil Emery.
“I wouldn’t call J’Marcus a mauling run blocker. He’s an efficient guy. But you do want an athlete on the right side as well.”
What coaches and personnel evaluators are looking for as much as anything in tackles is arm length. Shorter arms can live inside where power rules but keeping an edge rusher at bay requires hand punch and reach, plus the ability to keep that guy’s hands off you.
Right? Left? Who cares?
In a painful Bears case study, San Francisco rush linebacker Aldon Smith (255 pounds) annihilated both Webb and Carimi last season by being lined up on both right and left edges. Clay Matthews had 13.5 sacks in 2010 as primarily a left-edge rusher; he has settled in on the defensive right but like Smith, and Julius Peppers, he can go where the protection isn’t quick enough to handle him.
Elsewhere, “Look at Indianapolis, for example,” Munoz said. “[Robert] Mathis and [Dwight] Freeney look like linebackers.”
Freeney (269 pounds) was on the left, Mathis (243) on the right, and Mathis has had no fewer than 7 sacks in any of the last nine seasons, roughly the same sack production as Freeney. Colts opponents didn’t need more size at right tackle; they arguably needed less.
“The [rushers] now the same size as they’ve been,” Munoz said, “just that they’re twice as quick.”
Bushrod helped keep Brees among the NFL’s most difficult to sack. Bushrod allowed four sacks in his 1,130 snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Saints right tackle Zach Strief (349 pounds) allowed six in 806 snaps.
Don’t ignore history
Doug Atkins, Fred Dean, Richard Dent and a couple others notwithstanding, more defensive ends and rush linebackers in the Hall of Fame were not terrors on quarterbacks’ blind sides, but in their faces, from left defensive end:
Deacon Jones. Willie Davis. Carl Eller. Dan Hampton. Howie Long. Reggie White. Gino Marchetti. Andy Robustelli, Jack Youngblood. Michael Strahan (who will be in the Hall).
Even Dean, who revolutionized the game as a pass-rush specialist, was 245 pounds. So was Andre Tippett, (a left-edge linebaker). So was Charles Haley, who should be in the Hall of Fame. So was Rickey Jackson (another left-edge linebacker).
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And the Hall of Fame is replete with right tackles who were blocking those guys and were not themselves goliaths: Forrest Gregg. Bob “Boomer” Brown. Jackie Slater. Rayfield Wright. Ron Yary.
“I love guys who can pass block and still come off and run block with power,” Munoz said. “You just don’t have many of those guys it seems.”
Now consider recent draft preferences on defense.
In the 2012 draft, the Bears made a pass rusher a priority -- Shea McClellin, 260 pounds. That was after the Seattle Seahawks grabbed Bruce Irvin (255 pounds) and San Diego snatched up Melvin Ingram (265). When the Bears didn’t take Chandler Jones (265 pounds), Bill Belichick did. The Houston Texans landed Whitney Mercilus (257).
Those were all picks within the first 26 of the draft, for teams looking to staff both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. This year Dion Jordan (248 pounds), Ezekiel Ahsah (271) and Barkevious Mingo (241) were taken within the first six picks of the draft.
Meanwhile, the three tackles taken within the first four picks (Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckl, Lane Johnson) were 306 pounds or less, and projected at left tackle. Alabama’s D.J. Fluker went 11th. He’ll be a right tackle at 336 pounds. Fluker against the kind of edge speed that has been coming into the league in the last couple of years will be worth monitoring.
“I don’t know about roles so much as just trying to find the best five,” Emery said. “And you want to continue to put the best one on the left because it is the blind side.
“We’re definitely not looking for a big mauler. We’re just looking for the best five, truly.”