The Chicago Bears' offensive line has been a team weakness for years. The last time the front five performed at a reasonably high level was during the club's 2006 Super Bowl season. Since then, the unit has consistently finished at or near the bottom of the league in overall performance. This is especially so in pass protection, as no team has allowed more sacks over the past two seasons than the Bears.
Yet, despite an offensive line that protects as well as a sieve on most occasions, wide receiver is a bigger priority if Chicago's offense is going to become an elite unit.
The Bears spent big in order to acquire Jay Cutler, sending two first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Denver Broncos in the 2009 trade. Trading those picks, which are tantamount to gold in today's NFL, is the main reason the club has lacked depth the past few seasons. It's hard to reload when you don't have a first- or second-round pick for two straight drafts.
QB Jay Cutler
With such a huge investment in the club's signal caller, it's borderline criminal to surround him with mediocre receivers. The Bears have done nothing more than offer Cutler mid- to late-round receivers, and Roy Williams. Every other "elite" quarterback in the league has abundant talent to which to throw, and Cutler has Dane Sanzenbacher.
Many believe the problems in pass protection are holding Cutler back but the numbers don't back up that claim. Pro Football Focus (PFF) charted how every quarterback in the league, with at least 200 dropbacks, fared under pressure last year. Cutler faced pressure on 133 dropbacks, yet took just 23 sacks. His 17.3 sack-per-dropback percentage was 13th best in the league, ahead of Tony Romo, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers, to name just a few.
Cutler threw three TDs under pressure, compared to just two interceptions. His 1.50 TD-to-INT ratio was 10th best in 2011, ahead of Stafford, Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Phillip Rivers. Under duress, Cutler completed 56.2 percent of his passes, third best out of 34 qualifying signal callers in the NFL.
With sacks, touchdowns, interceptions and completion percentage are alltaken into account, PFF developed a normalized grading system for QBs. The average mark for any situation is 0.0, with the average mark while under pressure was -7.1. Cutler graded at 0.3, sixth best in the NFL. He was one of only six passers to grade in the positive – the others were Brady, Eli Manning, Newton, Rodgers and Drew Brees.
These numbers reveal Cutler's growing comfort level throwing with defenders in his face. In essence, he's one of the best in the league while under pressure. So, while Chicago's offensive line is a hindrance, it's not going to completely derail Cutler's ability to produce downfield. Even with a collapsing pocket, Cutler can still play at a very high level.
Recent history has also shown that an elite pass protection unit isn't necessary to make it to the Super Bowl. The front five of the New York Giants, one of this year's Super Bowl participants, is arguably the worst in the league. While the Steelers and Cardinals both proved that a team with top-notch weapons at the skill positions can overcome a porous offensive line.
A good line helps, but it's not absolutely necessary.
Cutler has been outstanding even in the face of constant pressure. Imagine what he could do if he actually had someone to throw to. Chicago's receivers last year could not consistently create separation, which often left Cutler without any options down the field. The Bears' current wideouts, with the possible exception of Earl Bennett, do not have the ability consistently win the one-on-one matchups.
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
If Bears brass does not address the position, Cutler will be left with arguably the worst receiving group in the NFL, again. Roy Williams isn't likely to return and at this point, it's anyone's guess when Johnny Knox will be able to play again, if ever. And the Devin Hester experiment appears to have run its course. That leaves just Bennett, Sanzenbacher and late-season call up Max Komar as Chicago's wideouts heading into 2012.
With that group at receiver, the Bears will stand no chance in today's pass-heavy NFL. I'm not saying the team shouldn't invest in offensive linemen but, considering Cutler's abilities against a heavy rush, receiver is the higher priority.
A mauling guard isn't critical either, as the Bears rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season for the first time in 20 years. This group can run block and will be even better if Gabe Carimi returns to full health.
Chicago has the 19th overall pick in this year's draft. If both T Mike Adams and WR Michael Floyd are available at that point, the Bears have to go with the receiver. The same goes for free agency. If the organization has to choose between G Ben Grubbs and WR Dwayne Bowe, then the answer is Bowe.
If the Bears can upgrade both the receivers and offensive line this offseason, more power to them. But if they have to choose one over the other, then wideout must come first.
Follow me on Twitter: @BearReport
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.