Throughout business, your value to your field, company or community is in direct correlation to the amount of money you make. A doctor, who saves lives, is paid accordingly. While an accountant, whose job doesn't carry the same weight, is paid less. The more useful you are, the more you are paid.
It is the same in the NFL, where the most important players are given the biggest contracts. Quarterbacks rake in the biggest deals because they are, by far, the biggest factor in each team's success. In this league, clubs with bad quarterbacks do not win Super Bowls, so the good ones are paid at an elite level.
In deciphering the importance of the remaining positions, look at the yearly franchise tag numbers, calculated by averaging the top five salaries at each position. In 2013, it's projected that the second highest paid position is defensive end, the players tasked with pressuring those precious quarterbacks. And near the top of the tag list are the offensive tackles, whose job it is to keep the defensive ends out of the backfield.
Heading into free agency this offseason, the Chicago Bears will be in the market for improvements along the offensive line, including both tackle positions. J'Marcus Webb is improving but he's far from dependable, and second-year player Gabe Carimi was horrible in pass protection last season. If the Bears can find an affordable upgrade on either edge of the offensive line, expect the front office to make that move.
Yet, because they are so valued around the league, acquiring a top-tier offensive tackle requires paying out the nose, especially on the left side. Cornerstone tackles don't come into the league every season, so teams will often slap the franchise tag on their top edge protectors. When you've got a guy that can keep your quarterback upright, you hang onto him.
There are a number of tackles set to hit the open market once free agency begins on March 12, yet many will be tagged and most will be overpaid. Will there be a relatively affordable OT that Chicago should pursue this offseason? Let's look at the options.
T Jake Long
Tim Heitman/US Presswire
Jake Long (6-7, 319), Miami Dolphins, Age: 28
Long is a four-time Pro Bowler and has long been considered one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL. Yet injuries have caused him to regress the past few seasons. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Long graded as the 46th best offensive tackle in the league last year, one spot ahead of Webb. In fact, Webb had a higher run block grade than Long in 2012. Long has said publicly he wants at least $10 million per season and it doesn't appear the Dolphins are willing to pony up. As a result, he could hit the open market. Yet given his drop off in production and expected salary, the Bears would be better off finding a more economical option. The last thing the team needs is another Orlando Pace.
Ryan Clady (6-6, 315) Denver Broncos, Age: 26
Clady is one of the most dependable left tackles in the league, starting every game during his five-year career in Denver. PFF graded him the fourth best tackle in the league last season, with the fourth best pass-blocking grade. His presence on Cutler's blind side would be a phenomenal boost to Chicago's passing attack. Unfortunately for the Bears, it appears the Broncos will very likely slap the franchise tag on Clady if a long-term agreement can't be reached.
Sebastian Vollmer (6-8, 320), New England Patriots, Age: 29
Vollmer is considered one of the best right tackles in the game. He's solid in protection and as a run blocker. He could easily shore up the right side of Chicago's offensive line, where Carimi was a mess last season. The Patriots are in a tough position: do they tag Was Welker for the second year in a row or use the tag on Vollmer, a key player in keeping Tom Brady upright. If Vollmer hits the open market, he'll command a lot of attention. Vollmer will be pricy and that could scare off the Bears, who may want to give Carimi another shot to prove he's not a bust.
Andre Smith (6-4,335), Cincinnati Bengals, Age: 26
Smith has evolved into one of the better right tackles in the league. Last season, PFF gave him the same overall grade as Clady. Yet while Clady struggles as a run blocker, Smith can maul – his run block grade in 2012 was sixth best at his position. He has dealt with injuries throughout his career and recently was arrested for trying to board a plane with a pistol, so there's a lot of risk to Smith. On top of that, the Bengals may tag him. For the contract he'll command, the Bears would wise to look elsewhere.
Will Beatty (6-6, 319), New York Giants, Age 27
For two seasons, Beatty has been a solid presence protecting Eli Manning's blindside. He's also a very strong run blocker, grading one slot higher than Smith amongst tackles in 2012, per PFF. He is penalized far too often – his 11 penalties were three more than Webb. He has also dealt with injuries throughout his career, never playing more than 10 games in a season until last year. That may give the Giants pause in paying him like a franchise left tackle. If they choose to play it cautiously and Beatty hits the open market, the Bears should pounce. Despite the injury concerns, he's a cornerstone left tackle, the type of player that doesn't come around very often.
T Phil Loadholt
Phil Loadholt (6-8, 343), Minnesota Vikings, Age: 27
Loadholt is a massive human being who can road grade in the run game. PFF ranked him the fourth best run blocker last season. He's also sound in pass protection, allowing just four sacks in 2012, and durable, having missed just one start in his four-year career. The Vikings opened up talks with their right tackle last October but nothing has materialized. They obviously want to re-sign him but Loadholt would command a nice deal if he hits free agency. His size and run blocking ability would fortify the right side of Chicago's offensive line, so if he hits the open market, Emery needs to pursue him aggressively.
Branden Albert (6-5, 316), Kansas City Chiefs, Age: 28
Albert is a durable five-year left tackle who is outstanding in pass protection, yet he struggles mightily as a run blocker. On top of that, he deals with chronic back spasms. The Chiefs are strongly considering putting the tag on Albert. He wouldn't give up many sacks but Albert's bad run blocking, back problems and price tag are too much to overlook. The Bears should steer clear.
Sam Baker (6-5, 301), Atlanta Falcons, Age: 28
Baker dealt with numerous injuries his first four years in the league, including lingering back problems, which had many folks labeling the former first rounder a bust. Yet he was healthy in 2012 and played very well in pass protection, while still struggling as a run blocker. The Falcons have been loyal to Baker throughout his up-and-down career, so it's likely he'll reward them by re-signing at a discount. I fully expect Baker to be back in Atlanta next season.
Gosder Cherilus (6-7, 325), Detroit Lions, Age: 28
Cherilus has had consistency issues throughout his career, yet he has developed into a serviceable right tackle. According to PFF, he was the fifth best pass-protecting tackle in the league last season. He also won't hurt you in the run game. Cherilus doesn't appear to be in the Lions' future plans, so he's going to test the free agent waters. He isn't an elite tackle but he's a big upgrade over Carimi in pass protection and could be signed at a relative discount. The Bears could do a lot worse than brining in Cherilus to shore up protection on the right side.
Jermon Bushrod (6-5, 315), New Orleans Saints, Age: 28
While in New Orleans, Bushrod played under current Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who was the offensive line coach for the Saints. As such, there has been a lot of talk about Bushrod reuniting with Kromer in Chicago. Bushrod may be familiar with Kromer's system but he's not an upgrade over Webb at left tackle. In fact, Webb's pass block grade in 2012 was far better than Bushrod's. Considering Webb is still developing, is a better pass protector, and is four years younger, it wouldn't make any sense for Chicago to sign Bushrod.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.