The Chicago Bears allowed 49 sacks last season, fifth worst in the league. In 2010, the club led the league in sacks allowed with 56. The team's two-year sack total of 105 is by far the most in the league over that span.
Yet, despite the prevalent pass protection issues, the Bears did little to upgrade the offensive line this offseason. In fact, the only roster addition was guard Chilo Rachal, who was benched by the San Francisco 49ers last season.
On the right edge, the return of Gabe Carimi – easily the best lineman on the team – should provide needed stability. He demonstrated last year that, in addition to his outstanding run blocking ability, he can handle elite pass rushers.
Yet it's on quarterback Jay Cutler's backside where things get dicey. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), J'Marcus Webb, last year's starter, allowed 12 sacks in 2012, second most in the league. The former seventh-round draft pick did not show the necessary footwork or balance to block the game's top edge rushers. More often than not, Webb resorted to bending at the waist instead of moving his feet, resulting in numerous headaches for Cutler.
T J'Marcus Webb
This worst part about Webb's 2012 campaign was that he appeared to get worse as the year wore on. It all came to a head in the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, when Jared Allen took Webb behind the proverbial woodshed. Allen picked up 3.5 sacks on the day, continuously beating Webb around the edge. It was as poor a performance at left tackle as Chicago fans have seen in decades.
Webb left a horrible taste in everyone's mouth, which is why new offensive coordinator Mike Tice has instituted a camp competition at left tackle during this year's training camp. Chris Williams, who was drafted as the club's left tackle of the future in 2008, will challenge Webb in Bourbonnais for the starting gig.
Let's break down what will end up being the most crucial competition in Bears camp.
The case for Webb
Everyone seems to forget that Webb is still very young and is just entering his third season. He was drafted in 2010 in the seventh round, where few players are expected to contribute, nonetheless start at one of the most important positions on the team.
As a rookie, he was inserted at right tackle and didn't make the switch to the left side until camp last year. His inexperience was evident but there's no reason to believe Webb can't improve, as most players do with continued playing time.
Webb was thrown into the fire, with an offensive coordinator in Mike Martz that offered him no help, and was thoroughly exposed. Yet, athletically, Webb has all the tools to succeed on the left edge. He has ideal size (6-7, 333), quick feet and hands. With Webb, it has always been about consistency and staying focused on each and every play.
If he can get his head on straight – which fighting for his job will hopefully facilitate – he'll earn one more shot at being the left tackle starter.
The case for Williams
Due to a preseason back injury, Williams didn't see much of the field his rookie year. Despite being drafted to play left tackle, the team chose to slide him to the right side in 2009 to accommodate Orlando Pace, who struggled with injuries and poor play. Late in the campaign, the club pulled Pace and put Williams on the left edge.
Williams showed well during his few starts at left tackle yet missed time the following camp due to injury, compelling Tice to move him inside to left guard, where he started the past two years.
T Chris Williams
Yet this year he finally gets a shot to live up to being the 14th overall selection in 2008. In college, Williams was a dominant left tackle, particularly in pass protection. He's not a road grader but he showed solid technique and good quickness, compelling Chicago to take him in the first round.
At left guard, Williams made big strides last year, so it's safe to assume he has grown as an NFL offensive lineman. If that translates over to left tackle, he'll easily beat out Webb for the starting job.
Predicting the winner
This competition is going to go down to the wire. Tice has shown patience with his linemen in the past and there's no reason he'll rush to judgment with one of the most important positions on his offense. He's going to take a long, hard look at both players and likely won't declare his starter until just before the start of the season.
We should expect some growth from Webb due to his extensive experience in such a short time, yet it's hard to imagine him suddenly flipping the switch and becoming a quality left tackle. His lapses in focus have repeatedly put Cutler in harm's way, which is no longer acceptable. This is an offense that is loaded with talent at the skill positions, one that can only be derailed by a porous offensive line. The time for development is over, now it's time to produce, something Webb has failed to do consistently.
And if Webb loses out, his experience on both sides of the line will make him a great swing tackle.
Williams, on the other hand, has to be frothing at the mouth to get another shot at left tackle. While he was a serviceable guard, his passion is at tackle. If he fails to beat out Webb – which seems unfathomable at this point – he'll likely be cut next offseason. With that fire lit under him, I expect he'll shine in camp and earn back his starting job.
Winner: Chris Williams
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.