Last season, the Chicago Bears came out of training camp with Chris Williams at left guard and Lance Louis at right guard. Louis struggled early and missed three of the team's first four contests. Chris Spencer replaced him and never gave up the position, starting 14 of the team's 16 games at right guard.
Spencer was technically sound and has great athleticism. Yet he lacks ideal power and had a hard time with bigger defensive tackles. He's much better suited at center, his natural position.
Williams slowly made progress through the team's first nine contest of 2011. He was looking like the team's best offensive lineman before a wrist injury forced him to miss the last seven games of the season.
Edwin Williams stepped in at left guard. He showed very well in pass protection but isn't a mauler inside. As a run blocker, he can be a liability, although he did improve in that area late in the season.
Of all the positions along the offensive line, one could argue that guard is the deepest, but that's not saying a whole lot. At every spot along the front five, upgrades are necessary. A big-time mauler inside would not only clear more lanes for Matt Forte but also provide better protection in front of Jay Cutler.
The guard position is relatively thin in the NFL. Most of the veteran free agents about to hit the open market wouldn't provide significant improvement over the players currently on Chicago's roster.
Yet the cupboard isn't totally empty. Here are three players that would provide a big boost to the interior of the Bears' offensive line.
G Carl Nicks
Carl Nicks, NO (6-5, 343) Age: 26
The Saints were hoping to place the franchise tag on Nicks but were forced to use it on Drew Brees. As such, one of the best guards in the game becomes available. Nicks is a pure mauler that can absolutely dominate inside. He's a road grader in the run game, using his massive frame and exceptional strength to overpower defenders.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked Nicks' 2011 performance the second best of any guard in the league. In pass protection, he allowed just two sacks and eight quarterback pressures all season. Against the Detroit Lions in last year's NFC Wild Card matchup, Nicks had his way with Ndamukong Suh, one of the top defensive linemen in the game, the entire contest. There are few guards in the NFL better than Nicks.
The Saints gave G Jahri Evans an $8-million-per-season contract last year and Nicks will be looking for at least as much. It's doubtful New Orleans will be able to pony up the cash, considering both Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are also free agents.
Nicks will likely test the market and get paid somewhere around $9 million-$10 million per year. He would be an outstanding addition to Chicago's offensive line. When one of the top players at his position becomes available, one just entering his prime, you have to go after him.
Evan Mathis, PHI (6-5, 302) Age: 30
According to PFF, the only guard that ranked higher than Nicks last season was Mathis. There isn't a better road grader in the game than Mathis. He played a huge part in RB LeSean McCoy's Pro Bowl season last year, in which he rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Mathis is an absolute beast as a run blocker. PFF's run blocking grade for him last season was three times better than the second-highest ranked guard. On top of that, he did not allow a single sack. Additionally, the seven-year veteran doesn't have the mileage typical of a 30-year-old lineman and still has plenty left in the tank.
The Eagles are looking to re-sign Mathis but with all the huge contracts they paid out last year, they'll be hard pressed to keep him. He wants to stay in Philadelphia, and said he might take a hometown discount, but if Chicago really wants him, Mathis might not be able to pass up the money.
He would bring nastiness, experience and leadership to the Bears' front five. If the club doesn't sign Nicks, Mathis would make an outstanding second option.
Ben Grubbs, BAL (6-3, 310) Age: 27
Grubbs is a Pro Bowl guard about to enter his prime. He isn't at the same level as Mathis or Nicks but he would be a significant upgrade over Spencer, Louis or either Williams.
He's strong as a run blocker and in pass protection. PFF ranked him the 12th best guard in the league last year. There is reportedly a lot of interest in him around the league, so the Bears will have to make him a big offer. If they do, he'll provide the inside stability Chicago needs.
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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.