Will Bears be able to boost offensive line?
It's less than a week away until the start of the "Underwear Olympics," better known as the NFL's Scouting Combine, when Bears coaches and scouts take their evaluations of college prospects to the next level.
It's assumed that G.M. Phil Emery, new head coach Marc Trestman and their staffs will be particularly interested in a strong group of offensive linemen, hoping to upgrade a position that has disappointed in recent years.
According to ESPN's NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who conducted a national conference call Wednesday morning, there are three elite offensive left tackles in this year's rookie crop.
All three would be an upgrade over the Bears' incumbent starter, J'Marcus Webb, who has been plagued by inconsistency and is probably a better fit at right tackle or guard.
Unfortunately for the Bears, who would love to upgrade their blindside protection of quarterback Jay Cutler, Kiper believes all three could be gone before the Bears pick at No. 20.
"Three left tackles all could be off the board by the middle of the first round," Kiper said, echoing an opinion shared by many draft analysts.
Kiper currently has Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel going No. 1 overall to the Chiefs, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher goings seventh to the Cardinals and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson being taken by the Rams with the 16th pick.
It's possible the athletic but inexperienced Johnson could fall to the Bears. He's only been an offensive lineman for two years and a left tackle for just one.
He was a quarterback at Kilgore (Texas) Junior College and came to Oklahoma as a tight end before moving to right tackle and then to the left side.
But Kiper predicts the Bears will wind up with Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker as their first-round pick, and the 6-foot-6, 335-pound fourth-year junior might be the answer at left tackle.
But he might be better suited to stay at right tackle, where he played at 'Bama. Fluker is considered an excellent run blocker but a project as a pass protector, which is critical for an NFL left tackle.
"I know a lot of people don't have him in the first round," Kiper said, (but) I have him solidly in the first. I would be shocked come April 25 (the first day of the draft), if he's not in the first round.
"I think he's a heck of a football player. People keep saying, 'Well, he's not a great pass blocker.' If you watch some of those games against skilled pass rushers, he did a heck of a job.
"He's got incredibly long arms, he's got good enough feet, he's certainly a dominant run blocker. I think he'll be either a left tackle for some teams, or at worst a great right tackle."
At either position, Fluker could be "the best (offensive lineman) the Bears have by the end of his rookie year," Kiper said.
Cynics would argue that's damning with faint praise given the recent struggles of the Bears' offensive line, which is why Emery is expected to address that position with the team's first pick in April.
Over the last 10 years, the Bears have used just two draft picks in the first three rounds on offensive linemen. They're long overdue to begin devoting more resources to that position.
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