With renewed hope that a labor settlement is within reach by early July, the Bears' offense could soon get a much-needed start on improving its disappointing 2010 performance.
The biggest problem last season was a mediocre offensive line that allowed an NFL-worst 56 sacks, a major reason the Bears finished 30th in total yards with an average of 289.4 per game, 106 less than the league-leading San Diego Chargers.
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First-round draft pick Gabe Carimi is expected to start immediately. He seems better suited for right tackle, which means last year's rookie sensation, seventh-rounder J'Marcus Webb, could shift to left tackle.
That in turn would mean another position change or a reserve role for Frank Omiyale, who began the 2010 season with two starts at right tackle but started the final 14 games at left tackle, where his performance was uneven.
O-line coach Mike Tice spent nearly half of the 2010 regular-season shuffling the starting lineup in an attempt to get the best five players on the field.
Even when he did, the line left much to be desired. With the addition of Carimi and possibly a veteran free agent, Tice faces a similar task this season.
He eventually will get it figured out, but with a shortened off-season, it might again take several games to find the best combination.
Better play up front is imperative if offensive coordinator Mike Martz is to maximize the talents of quarterback Jay Cutler and his own game planning and play-calling.
In his second season with the Bears, Martz needs a productive off-season and preseason if improvement is expected on that side of the ball.
Cutler improved over his first year with the Bears, but he has much more room for growth. He sliced his interceptions from a league-worst 26 in 2009 to 16, but he will never play to his immense potential without better protection.
It's not just the Bears' offensive tackle positions that are in flux up front.
First-round pick Chris Williams (2009) started the final 11 games at left guard last season. He was drafted to be the left tackle of the future but has failed to fulfill those expectations.
It remains to be seen if he is the long-term answer at guard.
Right guard Roberto Garza has played next to center Olin Kreutz for five years, but he may have to fight for his job. Kreutz is an unrestricted free agent the Bears need desperately to re-sign, as he remains the anchor of the line even as he enters his 14th season.
Just as important, there does not seem to be an apparent heir to the six-time Pro Bowler on the roster.
Critics contend the Bears lack a true No. 1 go-to wide receiver, and they're correct.
But with Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester, a well-protected Cutler has enough weapons to launch an effective aerial attack, especially when the receiving talents of running back Matt Forte and tight end Greg Olsen are factored into the equation.
Olsen's role was somewhat marginalized in Martz's offense, but he still tied for the team lead with 5 touchdown catches.
Forte bounced back big time from a sophomore slump, demonstrating his talents as an all-around featured runner by averaging a career-best 4.5 yards per carry and tying for the team lead with 51 receptions.
The offense would benefit from a big, physical presence at wide receiver, and several will be available when the abbreviated and probably frenzied free-agency period begins.
In the meantime, 6-foot-4, 220-pound Canadian import Andy Fantuz has impressed teammates during informal, players-only workouts during the lockout.
Fantuz put up huge numbers last season in the CFL (87 catches for 1,380 yards), but it remains to be seen if he has enough speed and quickness to gain separation against NFL defensive backs.
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