Is it possible the Chicago 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?
While 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, no additions have been made in free agency or via trade.
But this is a group that has permitted 105 sacks over the past two seasons. With that lack of protection, quarterback Jay Cutler and recently acquired Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall will never be allowed to reach their potential.
But in recent weeks, it almost sounds as if the Bears are willing to stand pat on the line.
"I don't want to picture it as we're looking for a left tackle," coach Lovie Smith said at the NFL meetings. "We feel comfortable with the two guys (J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi) we started with last year. We like the group of offensive linemen 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."
OT J'Marcus Webb
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 even 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 Wednesday (April 4) night. "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 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 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 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's draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki, who has Allen at No. 36.
The other problem is that 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.
QB Jason Campbell
Troy Taormina/US Presswire
--Were it not for last season's five-game losing streak that coincided with quarterback Jay Cutler's season-ending wrist fracture, Jerry Angelo might still be the Bears' general manager.
When backup quarterback Caleb Hanie failed miserably as Cutler's fill-in, it exposed a personnel deficiency that wound up costing Angelo his job. Angelo's replacement, Phil Emery, won't make the same mistake. Emery made sure of that by signing former Raider and Redskin Jason Campbell, who has started 70 NFL games.
"We want to go into the season knowing that if something were to happen to Jay that we have a quarterback ... that we can still win a championship (with), and we really believe we have found that in Jason Campbell," Emery said.
Campbell compiled an 84.2 passer rating and led the Raiders to a 4-2 start last season before suffering a fractured collarbone. The 30-year-old, seven-year veteran has a career passer rating of 82.8.
--As far as preseason schedules go, the Bears have a pretty interesting one this year.
Coach Lovie Smith's team opens the preseason against the Broncos and their new quarterback, Peyton Manning, the second weekend in August (9-12) at Soldier Field.
In the same game, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and his new wide receiver Brandon Marshall will face the team they played for from 2006-08. In their last two seasons together in Denver, Marshall caught 206 passes for 2,590 yards and 13 touchdowns, and both players went to the Pro Bowl.
Exact dates and times for all preseason games will be announced at a later date.
In their second preseason game, the weekend of Aug. 16-19, the Bears host the Redskins, who are expected to draft Baylor's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick later this month.
The Bears play their final two preseason games on the road. They face the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and Peyton Manning's younger brother, Eli, in a nationally-televised game on CBS Friday, Aug. 24. They finish up at Cleveland against the Browns on Thursday, Aug. 30. It will mark the ninth straight preseason in which the Bears have finished up against the Browns.
--Devin Thomas has never lived up to the hype since being drafted early in the second round (34th overall) by the Redskins in 2008, but he's still just 25, and he's getting a fresh start with the Bears.
In four NFL seasons with the Redskins (2008-10), Panthers (2010) and Giants (2010-11), he's caught just 43 passes for 482 yards and three touchdowns.
The 6-1, 221-pounder won a Super Bowl ring with the Giants last season, and he has been a major contributor on special teams as a kickoff returner and covering kicks. He recovered two fumbles in the NFC Championship Game, including one that set up the game-winning field goal in overtime.
"I really feel good about him, adding to our wideout depth and being a special teams player," Bears general manager Phil Emery said. "We think that maybe he's at a spot in his career where he's ready to move forward. I think he sees this as a great opportunity to move forward in his career; get more involved, get more catches."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I scouted him when I was with the Kansas City Chiefs. I think an awful lot of his talent and his abilities. He's what we're looking for; that's a big, long-armed, strong, quick-footed man. He's as smart as any offensive lineman you'd ever want to draft, so he adds a lot to our mix." -- Bears general manager Phil Emery on right tackle Gabe Carimi, who won the starting job last season as a rookie but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game.
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