The Chicago Bears' offensive line has been one of the worst units in the NFL the past three seasons. Pass protection has been inconsistent at best and downright pathetic at worst, while the overall run blocking has been middle of the road.
GM Phil Emery said earlier this month that improving the front five will be a goal of his this offseason. Yet with every position in need of an upgrade, where does he begin?
Fans and media in Chicago have been calling for the head of J'Marcus Webb for three years. It's believed that a better left tackle, who can protect Jay Cutler's blind side, will be the first step in returning the offensive line to respectability.
Bear Report Radio co-hosts Jeremy Stoltz and Brett Solesky debate the value of Webb going forward.
Jeremy Stoltz: In terms of raw numbers, Webb does not hold up well. In 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Webb tied for most sacks allowed (7) on the team, and had the second most QB hits (5) and hurries (29). He still struggles with speed rushers, often lacks balance and can look silly against an inside move by the defender.
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At times this year, he was easily the weakest link up front. In Week 2, Webb gave up two sacks to Packers OLB Clay Matthews and in Week 11 allowed three sacks to 49ers OLB Aldon Smith. Not surprisingly, both of those games were Bears losses.
Over the last three seasons, there have been games where Webb's poor play has singlehandedly de-railed the offense. For that reason, Emery should strongly consider searching for a more stable and consistent left tackle this upcoming offseason.
Brett Solesky: I completely understand the argument that J'Marcus Webb should replaced as the starting LT for the Chicago Bears. Webb however improved from last year to this year. In 2011 Webb allowed 12 sacks, six hits and 30 hurries on the season, by contrast this year Webb allowed seven sacks, five hits and 29 hurries. Five of Webb's seven allowed sacks on the season came in two games against two of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
Webb also looked more comfortable than he did his first year starting at the position. The expectation is Webb should continue to improve in his third year starting at the left tackle spot and be a solid long-term answer going forward.
JS: Another factor in Webb's favor is his age (24 years old). People tend to forget that he just finished his third year in the league. He's only played left tackle for two seasons, so there's still plenty of room for improvement.
And he's on the right track. Webb has steadily progressed in each season. His PFF overall grade in 2010 was -29.1. That improved to -16.2 in 2011 and -0.8 in 2012. Which means, if he continues along that path, he'll be a positive contributor in 2013.
Despite that, his proclivity to false start is maddening and he still gets dominated by top-tier edge rushers. If Emery can find an upgrade, through the draft or free agency, he should make the move. With Webb's experience on both sides of the line, he'd make the perfect swing tackle.
BS: Therein lies the conundrum Emery faced last season when he considered upgrading the offensive tackle spot: where to find an adequate replacement. Of the rookies that Emery could have targeted in the 2012 NFL draft, only one wound up a starter at left tackle. Buffalo's Cordy Glenn finished with a pass blocking efficiency rating of 94.4, compared to Webb's 94.2. So Glenn was slightly better overall than Webb was in his first year starting at LT than Webb was in his second year starting.
The draft this year features two potential plug-and-play Day 1 starters and neither figure to get out of the top 10. Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M and Eric Fisher of Central Michigan are the two that could project better than Webb on Day 1. The other player who may be a better long-term projection is Oklahoma's Lane Johnson, who shows the athleticism to be a starting LT, but lacks the experience and refinement necessary to succeed at the position as an immediate starter.
The free agent market has more potential than last year, but as was the case when Jerry Angelo went out and tried to sign Willie Colon of the Steelers and Jermon Bushrod of the Saints two years ago, there will be obstacles. Most, if not all, potential free agents won't hit the open market. So with Webb developing into an adequate starter, the Bears should focus on adding youth to their defense.
JS: If there are no suitable replacements in free agency or the draft, then I agree, the team should look elsewhere to make upgrades. To me, that means moving inside and improving the interior of the offensive line. Chicago's guard play last year was sub par, particularly after Lance Louis was placed on IR.
Louis is a free agent and his health is a big question mark. Chris Spencer is a free agent and unlikely to return. James Brown is still a project and Edwin Williams just cannot maul. On top of that, Roberto Garza is heading into the final year of his contract.
If the Bears can plug in solid pieces at both guard positions, it will go a long way toward helping both Webb and Gabe Carimi on the edges. Considering their respective ages (24 and 23) now may not be the time to give up on them.
BS: Add in the need to resign Henry Melton, and Nate Collins on the defensive line, and the numerous other impending free agents in 2013 and 2014, and the Bears are best to focus signing their own players rather than adding significant payroll to a position that may not be overwhelming upgraded in free agency.
Marc Trestman's offense may be another factor that helps Webb continue to improve his overall performance. Trestman comes from a West Coast offensive background and the focus in that offense is getting the ball out quickly. According to Advanced Football Stats, Cutler led the league in the percentage of passes he attempted down the field that were 15 yards or more. Combine that with the Bears having the third lowest pass attempts off of the play-action fake and you can see the Bears were too predictable on offense in 2012.
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.
Brett Solesky has worked in TV, newspapers and, for the last seven years, in radio. He also co-hosts the best Chicago Bears podcast on the Web, Bear Report Radio, which appears on BearReport.com and his blog MidwayIllustrated.com.