Hold ‘em or Fold ‘em: Olin Kreutz

Bear Report's free agency series focuses on whether the franchise should re-sign, or let walk, each of its 16 free agents. We start off by considering longtime center Olin Kreutz.

For most of his career, Chicago Bears offensive lineman Olin Kreutz has been considered one of the best, if not the best, center in the NFL. His six Pro Bowl appearances and four All Pro selections attest to the amount of respect he's earned around the league. He was even named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.

Yet he hasn't earned a trip to the Pro Bowl since 2006, and his performance has waned some the past few years. He's lost a bit of quickness in his first step and has trouble with larger, powerful defensive linemen. That said, he's still one of the better interior blockers in the league, even at 34 years old.

Pro Football Focus recently graded every NFL lineman in terms of Pass Blocking Efficiency (PFE). While the rest of Chicago's offensive line finished at or near the bottom of their respective positions in PFE, Kreutz finished in the top 10 for centers. While he's not the dominating force he was earlier in his career, his experience, intelligence and nastiness still allow him to play at a very high level.

The Sport Xchange recently noted the rapidly increasing value of veteran players due to the lockout and what many assume will be a truncated preseason. The need for experience is doubly important at a position like center, whose job it is to make the vast majority of blocking-assignment calls at the line of scrimmage. He's the main cog for arguably the most important unit on the field.

With the work stoppage forcing teams to prepare for the season in the blink of an eye, a team with a stout centerpiece on the offensive line won't be forced to climb as steep of a learning curve. Which means even though Bears brass has professed their desire to bring Kreutz back once free agency starts, they may have to outbid a number of other suitors.

C Olin Kreutz
Tom Hauck/Getty

For a team like the Bears – which finished the 2010 season 22nd in rushing and 28th in passing, while giving up the most sacks in the league – keeping the front-five's stalwart in place should be the team's top priority. The organization saved a bundle by cutting Tommie Harris this offseason and cleared even more cap space by restructuring Julius Peppers' contract. If other teams choose to ratchet up Kreutz's price tag, the Bears need to be ready to ante up.

Chicago will be inserting at least one new piece to its front five this year, first-round pick Gabe Carimi, yet it's still unclear what position he'll occupy. He could play left or right tackle, and some even feel he'd be better served at guard. His location on the line, which won't be decided until training camp, could facilitate numerous positional switches amongst the rest of the linemen.

Then there's the possibility of the team signing a top-tier blocker in free agency, which would then cause even more shuffling up front. Potentially, every 2011 starter along the offensive line could be a different player than those who started in 2010. With that being the case, having a 13-year veteran in the middle is critical. Kreutz would serve as the rock around which the other rotating pieces could revolve. His experience at center could mean the difference between the line's resurgence next season or its continued regression.

If the team fails to bring Kreutz back, it would most likely ask Roberto Garza to slide inside and occupy the center spot. Garza, 32 years old, has been a starter on the team since 2005 but his play the past couple of seasons has been sub par. If he's forced to learn a new position and take on more responsibility, it could create disastrous results.

And if Garza changes positions, who then mans the right guard spot? If Carimi is slotted there, that leaves the team again with Frank Omiyale and J'Marcuss Webb at the tackle spots, both of whom were absolutely awful on the outside last year. In another less-than-ideal scenario, last year's practice-squad player Levi Horn could be asked to fill the left guard spot. That would then bring in more inexperience to a line in need of established players.

The potential chaos created by Kreutz's departure should more than justify whatever price tag the market creates for his services. There's no doubt that, without Kreutz, Chicago's offensive line could be worse this year than it was in 2010, which would almost guarantee a losing season.

Yes, Kreutz is that important.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider

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