Despite what Bears say, O-line is biggest need
Is it possible the Bears could go into the 2012 season without making significant personnel improvements to an offensive line that has been the NFL's worst over the past two years at protecting the quarterback?
Almost everyone agrees the offensive line has been and remains the Bears' position in greatest need of improvement since wide receiver Brandon Marshall was acquired. Still, no additions have been made to a group that has permitted 105 sacks over the last two seasons.
With that kind of protection, quarterback Jay Cutler and his Pro Bowl target, Marshall, will never reach their potential.
But in recent weeks, it almost sounds as if the Bears are willing to stand pat on the O-line.
"I don't want to picture it as we're looking for a left tackle," coach Lovie Smith said at the NFL meetings last week. "We feel comfortable with the two guys (J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi) we started with last year. We like the group of offensive lineman we have right now. We feel we can be successful with them. That being said, if someone can improve us, we'll look at them."
Hopefully, at least for Cutler, that was a smokescreen designed to obscure the Bears' draft plans. Webb allowed a league-worst 14 sacks last season at left tackle.
Part of the reason for those frequent failures was former offensive coordinator Mike Martz's refusal to provide help for Webb on slow-developing pass plays. But part of the blame has to fall on Webb, a seventh-round pick in 2010.
On the right side, Carimi lasted less than two full games in his rookie year before a dislocated kneecap ended his season and resulted in two surgeries. If he's back and 100 percent healthy, the Bears won't have any worries about his position for the next decade. Carimi might be capable of playing left tackle in the future, but that's no more than speculation for now. What is known is that he can be a top-flight, run-blocking right tackle.
"(Carimi) has been working tremendously hard," Bears general manager Phil Emery said during a conference call with season-ticket holders. "I have had a chance to visit with him a couple times and watch him rehab. We're very excited that he's coming back. He's going to really help solidify our offensive line."
Without Carimi, the Bears tried Frank Omiyale at right tackle, but he failed and was replaced by Lance Louis, who is better suited for guard.
The O-line was further decimated last season when Chris Williams, who started the first nine games at left guard, was sidelined for the remainder of the season with a dislocated wrist. It remains to be seen if getting Williams back is a plus. He was originally drafted in the first round in 2008 to be the left tackle of the future. But he washed out at that spot, and his play at guard hasn't been that much better.
Conventional wisdom says the Bears will use their first-round pick (19th overall) later this month to target the offensive line, specifically the left tackle position.
The problem with that plan is that the only sure-fire left tackle starter in this draft is USC's Matt Kalil, and he'll be long gone by the time the Bears are on the NFL draft clock.
There is a chance that Iowa's Riley Rieff could fall all the way to 19 because he lacks Kalil's strength, but big, athletic men who can play left tackle don't last long in a pass-happy league that places a premium on protecting the quarterback's blind side.
The consensus next-best left tackles, excluding Georgia's massive Cordy Glenn, who played left tackle last year but projects to guard in the NFL, are Stanford's Jonathan Martin and Illinois' Jeff Allen. But both players are reaches at 19. Martin has been a popular pick for the Bears in many mock drafts, but he's ranked as the 65th-best player in this year's draft by Pro Football Weekly analyst Nolan Nawrocki, who has Allen at No. 36.
The other problem is the Bears might decide to use their top pick to bolster a pass rush that needs a complement to perennial Pro Bowl right end Julius Peppers. That would mean waiting until at least the second round (the 50th overall pick) to address the O-line, and by then it might be too late to get any immediate help.