When GM Phil Emery signed two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod this offseason, there was a collective sigh of relief from Chicago Bears fans. Over the past few seasons, quarterback Jay Cutler has been routinely worked over by opposing defensive linemen. The Bears have finished 25th, 27th and 32nd in the NFL in sacks allowed the last three seasons respectively. As a result, Chicago's offense has struggled to consistently put points on the board.
So when Bushrod was signed to the largest contract for an offensive lineman in franchise history (five years, $35.97 million) the Bears instantly acquired a player who should be able to protect Cutler's blindside. That hasn't been the case the past two years, as J'Marcus Webb has been wildly inconsistent at left tackle.
This year, Chicago's coaching staff has shifted Webb back to right tackle, where he was a starter his rookie season in 2010. Now that he's on the right edge, what can we expect from Webb, whose contract is up after this season?
At right tackle in 2010, Pro Football Focus rated Webb as the second worst offensive tackle in the league. In 14 starts, which include two playoff games, Webb allowed 12 sacks and a whopping 48 quarterback hurries. He saved his worst performance for the NFC Championship game, when he gave up eight hurries against the Green Bay Packers.
Despite his struggles as a rookie, then-offensive-line coach Mike Tice chose to move Webb to the left edge in 2011, where pass protection is even more difficult. Webb responded by giving up 12 more sacks, which was second most amongst offensive tackles. Last year, he was again working at the same pace, with seven sacks allowed through the first 10 games.
Then suddenly a switch flipped for Webb. In the final six contests of 2012, he did not allow a single sack and gave up just seven QB hurries. All of the sudden, Webb went from being the front five's weak link to being the best pass protector on the team.
Remember, despite the fact it feels like he's played for the Bears since the Reagan era, Webb is only 24 years old. His improvement last season could indicate that the former seventh-round pick, who was thrust into the fire his rookie season, has finally developed into a consistent blocker. If that's the case, Webb should be even better on the right side, where he won't be facing the opposing team's best pass rusher week in and week out.
Additionally, throughout the offseason programs, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has consistently sent help to Webb's side. The coaching staff obviously feels Bushrod can hold his own out on an island at left tackle, so extra protection has almost always shifted right, which should further aid Webb.
In the Run Game
Most have focused on Webb's struggles in protection but at times, he's been equally bad as a run blocker. And while he improved as a pass blocker late last season, he did not get better in the run game. In fact, PFF gave Webb a negative run-block grade in six of the final eight contests in 2012.
Yet that was in a man-based blocking system. Under Kromer, the Bears will deploy a zone scheme, which could help Webb improve as a run blocker. Unfortunately, zone systems rely on quick, athletic linemen who have great balance and can work well at the second level. Webb does not fit that description, so it's hard to envision him improving substantially in Kromer's zone offense.
I fully expect Webb to be much more consistent in pass protection this year than he ever has in his three seasons in the league. He has taken his lumps, something that has been painful for Bears fans to watch, but his play in the second half last year shows a player who has finally figured out. And now that he's on the right side, he should improve even further. Even if he stagnates or takes a step backward in the run game, no one will be in a position to complain as long as he's keeping Cutler upright.
Finally, Webb must take a step forward in maturity and concentration this season. Those who follow him on Twitter know very well of his aloof nature. That would be fine if he didn't incur a false start in nearly every game he plays. Those types of mental lapses are no longer acceptable from a four-year veteran.
Webb said his arrest this offseason for marijuana possession woke him up and that he is rededicated to the game of football. We'll know whether or not he was telling the truth by his false-start count this season. If he has turned the corner and is now fully focused on football, and not McDonald's, then he'll be a huge asset, and not a liability, to the offensive line this year. With that accomplished, Webb would be in line for a large new contract after the season, which should give him plenty of incentive to raise his game in 2013.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.