Most fans and analysts feel the Chicago Bears need to spend a high draft pick on an at least one offensive lineman in this year's draft. The belief is that the front five, which has struggled mightily the last three years, must be infused with young talent, players that can solidify the offensive line for years to come.
Everyone can agree that improvement is needed up front, particularly in pass protection. The Bears ranked eighth in the league last year in sacks allowed (44). The team ranked fifth in 2011 (49) and dead last in 2010 (56). Poor pass blocking has been one of the main reasons Chicago's passing attack has not ranked higher than 28th the past three seasons.
Yet where that improvement comes from is open for debate. While using high draft picks on players projected to be quality NFL blockers seems like a good idea, the fact is no one knows how any of the incoming rookies are going to pan out. A "lock" in the eyes of most experts today could fizzle out of the league in a couple of years. One just has no way of knowing.
The Bears know this first hand. During Chicago's past 10 drafts, the team has invested a fourth-round pick or better on three offensive linemen: 2007, Josh Beekman, fourth round; 2008, Chris Williams, first round; 2011, Gabe Carimi, first round.
Beekman started 20 games in his three years with the Bears but was waived following the 2009 campaign. He has not played in an NFL game since. Williams was cut midseason last year, a few games before Carimi was benched.
On the other end of the spectrum, two of the Bears' former seventh round picks – Lance Louis in 2009 and J'Marcus Webb in 2010 – are currently the most dependable starting offensive linemen on the team.
In essence, over the past 10 years, Chicago has had more success with seventh-round offensive lineman than first-round offensive linemen. Those high-round failures can be attributed to former GM Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith but the fact remains the same: there's no way to predict NFL success for collegiate offensive linemen.
Which is why the Bears would be better off looking to free agency for help up front. In that way, they can acquire experienced, established linemen that can boost the line from Day 1, instead of pinning their hopes of improved protection on a group of green rookies.
Free agency this offseason will be loaded with seasoned blockers. The good ones will come at a price, but for an offensive-minded coach like Trestman, that will likely be an investment he's willing to make. And the money is there. Chicago has 18 unrestricted free agents on the current roster, which includes Brian Urlacher and the $9.2 million he made in 2012. So if the club wants to splurge on players that can help keep Jay Cutler upright, they'll have the financial flexibility to do so.
Consider the following scenario. Right guard Lance Louis re-signs and is healthy enough to play most of the season. Webb stays at left tackle, where he has vastly improved, and Roberto Garza again mans the middle. The club then signs Geoff Schwartz – who will come at a discount because he didn't start last year in Minnesota – to play left guard and pony up the big cash for Sebastian Vollmer to play right tackle.
With that front five, Chicago's offensive line instantly becomes serviceable. Many teams– including Green Bay in 2010 and New York in 2011 – have recently won Super Bowls with serviceable front fives. By adding established players, the Bears get increased pass protection and aren't forced to use high draft picks on blockers. The club could then address issues at defensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end, linebacker and cornerback in the draft.
It's OK to dream of a young dominant offensive line Emery can build from the ground up; a group that could carry the offense for the next decade. That's what every team wants but that strategy involves a lot of risk. The wiser, safer play is to invest a few bucks in free agency and shore up the front five with a pair of power vets.
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.