Free Agency Previews
OL at top of Bears “needs” list, but exactly which positions?
The anomalies along the Bears’ offensive line border on the bizarre:
In the past five drafts is that on the offensive line, the Bears have hit two seventh-round draft choices (Lance Louis, J’Marcus Webb) and missed on two No. 1’s (Gabe Carimi, so far, and Chris Williams).
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Their most expensive free agent signing (Chris Spencer) couldn’t win the job he was signed for (center) or hold the one he started in last season (guard).
The backup interior lineman they signed to an extension (Edwin Williams) stepped in at left guard late last season, lasted two starts and was benched for an undrafted free agent (James Brown).
Indeed, the Bears arguably have fared better by borderline chance than by careful evaluation and planning.
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The Bears have been 27-14 over the last three seasons with Jay Cutler starting and the offensive line blocking for him and for Matt Forte, Michael Bush, Chester Taylor and Marion Barber. It hasn’t been good enough, however, and offensive line upgrades are at the top of the “Help wanted” postings this offseason.
GM Phil Emery went into last year’s free agency with aggressive intent but managed to add only former 49ers guard Chilo Rachal before the season and former Lion/Steeler tackle Jonathan Scott on Sept. 10. As predecessor Jerry Angelo also found, “it’s very difficult for a team to give up on an offensive lineman if they’ve got one,” Emery said. “And really in this past market, franchise left tackles that were in the market didn’t exist.”
Seven different starting combinations were used last season as a succession of solutions failed. Only Webb and center Roberto Garza started all 16 games and Pro Football Focus ranked the collective 30th among offensive lines, up from 32 in 2011 and ahead of only Arizona and Indianapolis. The line could not be blamed for many of the 10 wins last season.
The Bears started four different left guards (Brown, Spencer, Rachal, Edwin Williams) and three right guards (Carimi, Louis, Williams).
“We felt good about Roberto Garza going into the season, and…the guy had a solid season,” Emery said. “We felt good about Lance Louis. He had a solid season before he got hurt.”
Apart from protection and other issues, the season left health questions over Carimi and Louis, who appeared to be fixtures going into last season. Carimi played like he was never fully recovered from his season-ending knee injury of 2011, and Louis went on IR with a torn ACL that did not do him any favors in his free-agency year.
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Ironically, Webb emerged from the season as the Bears’ least-bad lineman, according to Pro Football Focus. He and Carimi each allowed seven sacks but Webb was evaluated as the most consistent of the Bears’ linemen overall.
The Bears’ ranking of 31st in average yards on first-down was an indictment of the line’s ability to take control on early downs. The offense stood 14th in rushing yards per attempt but the 27th-overall finish in sacks per pass play reflected problems in multiple areas.
Needs assessment: 10 (1-10 scale)
Virtually no position outside of center should be considered a lock, and even that spot has questions looking past 2013. The fact that Emery was looking hard for OL help last year underscores the conclusion that the position group needed upgrading going into last season. It will be a priority again, both in free agency and into a draft projected to be deep in first-round talent.
The Bears felt they were sufficient last season with youth at tackle in Carimi and Webb. The season revealed that they are not set on the edges, with Carimi finishing the season as a backup and Webb not going to make anyone forget Jimbo Covert anytime soon. Scott was adequate as an emergency fill-in at right tackle but has not been more than adequate through six seasons.
Garza was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2011 but is entering a contract year turning 34 in late March. The health of Carimi and Louis make assumptions on the right side very problematic, and the Bears simply do not have a bona fide left tackle in Webb, who is likely ticketed for the right side.
Simple: “The O-line has got to get better,” Emery said. “We’ve got to push that level up.”
The free-agent market will be in play first, followed by a linemen-rich draft. A draft move may not necessarily in the first round, based on the history of coordinator Aaron Kromer when he was New Orleans Saints offensive line coach. Kromer coached five different linemen to Pro Bowls, none of them first-rounders, three of them from rounds four and five.
“We’ve had a good history of finding guys that were not first- and second-round draft picks that had a lot of success,” Kromer acknowledged. “But when you’re talking about an offensive line, you’re really talking about ways to play to their strengths.”
Kromer also is comfortable with the prospect of drafting a lineman and working a rookie into a starting lineup. “It’s all how to teach schemes; it’s not how complicated they are and it’s how you relate to that person to get it taught so they do know it in time,” Kromer said.
“I’ve had rookies start before and I don’t see a problem with that in the future.”
Best free-agent options (based on value, fit)
The draft is expected to net the Bears at least one blocker. From the current NFL talent, there are options, but the Giants recently re-signed left tackle Will Beatty for nearly $39 million over five years, $19 million guaranteed.
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Sam Baker, Atlanta -- Another former first-rounder with back questions. Baker is not a top-shelf option but has started 16 games in two of the last three seasons protecting Matt Ryan’s blind side. Not among the highest-rated LT’s but an upgrade.
Louis Vasquez, San Diego -- Attention has focused on tackle but Vasquez is a massive (6-5, 335) guard already being targeted around the league. One NFL’er told CSNChicago.com that Vasquez has not always played “to his size” but is very solid and a starting interior anchor can secure the middle.