Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently ranked each of the 32 NFL offensive lines in terms of performance last season. The Chicago Bears ranked dead last.
In particular, protection issues have been a problem up front for a few years now. Ever since the team traded for Jay Cutler in 2009, he's been running for his life.
GM Phil Emery said a few weeks ago that he's looking to improve the offensive line.
"We're always searching to improve our team and add depth," Emery said. "We've brought in one offensive guard so far to take a look at. There will be others.
"We'll look very hard at the draft [for offensive linemen]."
T J'Marcus Webb
Andrew Weber/US Presswire
The biggest area of concern is left tackle. According to PFF, J'Marcus Webb gave up 12 sacks last season, second most of any tackle in the league.
"I'd say any tackle can look bad at times," coach Lovie Smith said today at the NFL owners meetings in Florida. "There are some things you have to do to help him out a little bit more, at times, which we plan to do. So you can make a case and throw out stats on what he did. But, I think it's hard for all tackles by themselves in the league to block Julius Peppers from time to time. We feel we've got a good plan at the left tackle position. I'll say that."
And what exactly is that plan?
"We feel comfortable with J'Marcus at left tackle," said Smith. "Gabe [Carimi] could probably play left tackle. But we have plenty of time for all of that. That'll work itself out."
Carimi is still recovering from a dislocated knee suffered in Week 2 last season. The team expects he – as well as Chris Williams, who missed the final seven weeks with a wrist injury – will be ready to go by the start of the 2012 campaign.
"Chris Williams in there. Gabe Carimi in there. I'm excited about getting them back into the mix," Smith said.
There has been a lot of speculation that Williams, who was drafted as a left tackle, may get an opportunity to slide back outside and challenge Webb for the starting spot.
"Except for center, which he played a little bit in college, you could make a case for him at guard or tackle," Smith said. "Maybe a better case at guard, but you could say tackle, too."
It's far too early to guess how the coaches will position the players up front next year, as more pieces will likely be added in next month's draft.
"We like the group of offensive linemen we have right now, with what we're going to do with them, we think we can be very successful with them," Smith said. "With that said, you're always - right up until the opening week - if there's someone who can improve us we're going to look at it seriously."
The Bears are short on salary cap space, so don't expect them to make any significant moves in free agency. Instead, they will likely add a new piece or two early in the draft.
At that point, coordinator Mike Tice and offensive line coach Tim Holt can evaluate the players on the roster and make the best decisions for the team.
Bear Report's Take
Chicago's coaches have been giving out votes of confidence to the offensive line all offseason. From the way both Smith and Tice have been talking, you'd think the team had five Pro Bowlers up front.
Mike Tice & Lovie Smith
Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
Don't be fooled. They might like the players they have, and might think the group has potential, but they know as well as you and I that this group has stunk for two straight seasons.
Emery is the only one who will say so in public. The coaches are busy trying to build up the confidence of a unit that was eaten up late in the season last year. They want their players to have self-belief heading into 2012. Yet Emery knows changes are necessary and he's in charge of making that happen.
There is flexibility on the roster. Webb has played both tackle spots, Roberto Garza can play center or guard, Chirs Spencer can play center or guard, Lance Louis can play guard or tackle, as can Chris Williams. With a healthy Carimi and an improving Edwin Williams, there are plenty of options with this group.
If Emery drafts a guard, the club could slide Williams outside and have him compete with Webb. If the team drafts a tackle, Williams will likely stay at guard, where there will be a four-way competition for two starting spots.
Tice and Holt can then create an open competition in camp, allowing the best five players to come to the forefront.
For now though, we have to sit tight and wait to see what Emery does in the draft next month.
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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.