The Monsters of the Midway didn't have much go right this past season, as evidenced by a worse-than-it-seemed 7-9 record and missing out on the playoffs after making it all the way to Super Bowl XLI the year before.
The most glaring problem was up front, as an aging offensive line could not open holes in the running game consistently and failed to give the passing triumvirate of Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, and Kyle Orton adequate time to throw.
Center Olin Kreutz did not play up to his All-Pro standard, failing to make the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2000. Left guard Ruben Brown, a nine-time Pro Bowler himself, battled a nasty shoulder ailment and finished the year on injured reserve. And Fred Miller was a swinging gate at right tackle, which led the organization to release the 12-year veteran back in February.
General manager Jerry Angelo feels he's taken a gigantic leap – a 6-6, 315-pound leap, to be exact – toward fixing that problem with the selection of Vanderbilt offensive tackle Chris Williams in the first round of this past weekend's NFL Draft.
"It's great to be a Bear and to come play for a team with so much tradition," Williams said via conference call shortly after being drafted. "I am speechless right now. I am so excited to come in and be a part of that tradition there in Chicago."
Stan Jones/Vandy Insider
This draft was loaded with quality offensive lineman, specifically at the tackle position as eight ended up being selected in Round 1. After Jake Long of Michigan went No. 1 overall to the Dolphins, Williams was in a group of four that included Ryan Clady of Boise State, Branden Albert of Virginia, and Jeff Otah of Pittsburgh – all expected to go somewhere in the teens. There was a rumor floating around that Denver might take Williams at No. 12, mostly because quarterback and former Commodore Jay Cutler was lobbying for him, but the Broncos ultimately went with Clady.
Head coach Lovie Smith didn't meet with many prospects personally in preparation for the draft, but he did visit with Williams down in Nashville and believes he will be a good one.
"Chris is pretty driven to be one of the better players to play the position," Smith said. "He has high expectations for the type of play that we will get from him. From what I saw, he was just a solid player that had direction and knew where he wanted to go."
If all goes according to plan, Williams steps in immediately at left tackle so John Tait can be moved back to his natural home on the right side. That could potentially fix two problem positions at once, as Tait will be 33 years old this season and the shift to a less taxing spot could extend his career. Assuming Kreutz returns to form in 2008, suddenly the O-line begins to look a lot better.Some young tackles start off playing guard on Sundays just to get used to the speed of the pro game, although Angelo doesn't see that happening with Williams.
"I wouldn't think we would play him at guard at all," Angelo said. "We would keep him at tackle because that is where he plays. If you want a player to come in and contribute fairly soon, you really need to keep him at his position – the position he is most comfortable with."
Despite his tremendous size, Williams is a good athlete and pretty light on his feet. While he may not be a mauler in the running game, he's technically ready to be a top-notch pass protector from Day 1. Some scouts have questioned whether or not he possesses that classic mean streak that you like to see down in the trenches, but Bears officials don't seem overly concerned.
Stan Jones/Vandy Insider
"I don't know if I anticipate [starting right away]," said Williams, "but I feel that they drafted me to fill that need. And I am going to come in and definitely try to start, and I am assuming that is why they picked me in the first round. Most teams don't waste first-round picks on guys that don't play, so that's what I picture coming in there."
Williams is saying all the right things, but the fact remains that this team absolutely needs him to be as good as advertised right away. The Bears could not run the ball at all last year, as Cedric Benson and Co. stumbled along to the miserable tune of 3.1 yards per carry. And since neither Grossman nor Orton is very mobile in the pocket, sound pass protection is a prerequisite if either one of them is going to earn the starting job under center once and for all.
Smith promises that Williams will be just another rookie when he shows up to training camp, but he had better shoot up the depth chart like a geyser if this team is going to be a contender again.
"When you take a player in the first round, you should think that he can come in and play for you," said Smith. "I definitely think Chris will play a lot of years at a high level. As far as when he moves up, all rookies start from the same place and that is down at the bottom. We will let him tell us when he needs to move from there, and I have a feeling he move real quickly."
And what about the perception that Williams is, well, too nice to be a tackle?
"That is looking under rocks for things," said Angelo sternly. "That's not going to be his problem."
In a city that likes its linemen to be lewd, crude, and in a bad mood, it better not be.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.