If you had asked almost any analyst or fan a year ago what the Bears’ two biggest needs were heading into the 2010 season, you’d most likely get the response: offensive line and safety — in either order.
Fast forward to today and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a different answer to that same question.
So, why have things not changed in a year since these needs were identified?
It’s possible that the Bears have gotten even worse at the safety position after letting Danieal Manning walk away in free agency and only adding one player — rookie Chris Conte — to replace him on the roster. While Manning struggled to find a position for most of his career, he played well at strong safety last year and letting him walk without adding a better piece to the puzzle could have been a mistake. Then again, giving a player a bloated contract out of desperation to help fill a need is not a good way to do business.
After moving Chris Harris to the strong side, the Bears are hoping that second-year pro Major Wright will be the answer at free safety, and they might be willing to give Craig Steltz a shot as well — a disastrous proposition, in my mind. Wright would be the ideal replacement given his young age, his open-field tackling and his potential to learn and be a leader of the defensive backfield. But he suffered multiple injuries last year and missed five games, as visions of Mike Brown surely danced in Bears fans’ heads.
The offensive line is a different story. It’s conceivable that without having added a major free agent that the line will actually be better than last year. The team signed Chris Spencer to replace Olin Kreutz at center, and given Kreutz’s propensity to be blown up into the backfield and the dominant defensive tackles that play in the NFC North, that might actually be an upgrade.
The team also drafted tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round of this year’s draft and he could help stabilize the tackle position. He’s a strong run blocker and that’s a necessity for the Bears — with or without Mike Martz’s offense — in the colder weather late in the season.
Those two moves alone have slightly improved the line, but will it be enough to help the Bears take the next step? Not if the line plays anything like it did last year when it allowed Jay Cutler to be sacked a league-high 52 times in the regular season and paved the way for just 101 rushing yards per game — 22nd in the league.
Angelo admits that there are problems with the offensive line, as was evident by his exchange with the media the other day, but he claims there were no better options available on the free agent market.
“These offensive linemen are tough to find,” Angelo said. “We brought in an experienced center that is still in the prime of his career. It’s the best we could do. Who should we look at? Give me names. Don’t tell me about our problems, give me solutions.”
Angelo is counting on his younger players to improve from last year. J’Marcus Webb had his struggles but helped stop the bleeding after Frank Omiyale and Chris Williams were getting beat off the edge. He needs to continue to learn and t0 improve his footwork, though. The team had high expectations for Lance Louis, an athletic guard who played tight end in college. But Louis lost his starting job early in the season after he struggled to adapt to live game action. As for Williams, his only chance to stay in the league appears to be at guard after he failed miserably at both left and right tackle.
We may see improvement from the offensive line this year because it would be difficult for them to play worse than they did a year ago as one of the most inept offensive lines in football. But unless the group jells together and surprises us, it’s difficult to see Cutler getting less harassed this year.