The further the Bears get away from their appearance in Super Bowl XLI, the better the offensive line for that team, built almost exclusively through pro free agency, looks.
Credit for most of those additions belongs to former pro personnel director Bobby DePaul, who led the movement to sign Ruben Brown after the Bills tossed him aside. DePaul also brought in Roberto Garza, a Pro Bowl alternate in 2011 who will anchor the offensive line this season at center in his 12th season. The line also featured Fred Miller, who had some good football left in him that season, and the club paid big for John Tait to acquire him from the Chiefs, who had placed the transition tag on him.
New general manager Phil Emery has inherited the task of assembling an offensive line, and it's a significant chore that underscores what happens when a line is built through free agency and subsequent drafting of replacement parts doesn't take place and/or doesn't work.
Angelo went five drafts from 2003 through 2007 with the highest-selected offensive lineman being Josh Beekman, an undersized guard selected from Boston College in the fourth round in 2007. That explains part of why the team is at where it is right now. Subsequent selections like Chris Williams, a first-round pick in 2008, haven't met expectations. He has one more opportunity entering the final year of his contract. Gabe Carimi, last year's top pick, returns after missing nearly all of his rookie season with a knee injury that required significant surgery.
So, there is some projecting going on for 2012 from line coach turned offensive coordinator Mike Tice. The club hired Tim Holt, an assistant with the Buccaneers, to work with Tice on the offensive line. We don't know exactly how the unit will stack up just yet but expect a decision to be made early in training camp. That has been Tice's track record the last two summers.
Some remain miffed the team passed on the opportunity to augment the line via the draft. Why not?
According to ESPN, the Bears allowed a sack every 10.5 dropbacks over the last two seasons, easily the worst figure in the NFL. The Cardinals were next closest with one every 12.
But the team — right or wrong — saw a greater need at defensive end and that is why it took Shea McClellin at No. 19 overall and not a tackle like Iowa's Riley Reiff or guard like Stanford's David DeCastro. In the second round, Emery placed a premium on adding a playmaker in wide receiver Alshon Jeffery over a developmental lineman. So, Emery picked up where Angelo left off in ignoring the position via the draft. We'll find out at the end of the season if it was a decision that put the offense further behind in development.
Right now, the Bears would have you believe the switch from old play-caller Mike Martz to Tice will make a difference greater than any single personnel change could. For instance, the tackles will not be put in difficult positions routinely, asked to maintain one-on-one blocks on seven-step drops. Are the tackles going to get help all the time? No, not even close. But Tice, a line coach at heart, isn't going to ask the personnel he knows best to do things he doesn't believe they can accomplish routinely.
What will it look like at the end of the season? If it works out, the Bears will have made an overdue change in the coaching staff. If it doesn't, it will be a lesson in extreme hard-headedness the Halas Hall way.
A peek ahead: Tice hasn't wasted time selecting a starting five in the last two camps, evidence he arrives at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais with a plan in mind.
He rotatedJ'Marcus Webband Chris Williams at left tackle throughout the offseason program, dividing all the reps. The hunch here is Webb will remain the starter but anything is possible.
Tice switched Williams from left tackle to left guard during the 2010 season after he missed three games with a pulled hamstring. He hasn't been back at the position during a game since and a coach typically doesn't make a move like that with a player unless he doesn't plan on returning him to left tackle.
The Bears are not working Williams at left guard, where he started 20 straight games from Week 6 in 2010 until Week 10 last year when he suffered a freak wrist injury. So, the loser of the competition for the left tackle job will inherit the swing tackle position that belonged to Frank Omiyale a year ago.
Right now, the projection for the starting line is: LT Webb, LG Chris Spencer, C Garza, RG Lance Louis, RT Carimi.
Webb, who struggled with consistency last season, was asked to improve in two key areas. Tice wanted him to become more effective and powerful with his hands and he wanted him to clean up his footwork, specifically his second step. Webb had too many penalties last season and when breakdowns happened they came in bunches.
He's at the marquee position on the line and if he cannot get the job done, the team likely will need to find someone else for 2013.