- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Above average NFL offensive tackles are hard to find, which is why teams will generally re-sign or tag those players to prevent losing them in free agency. But it can happen. The Chicago Bears were able to dramatically upgrade their offensive line prior to the 2004 and 2005 seasons when the club inked free agent tackles John Tait and Fred Miller.
With offensive tackle an obvious need for the Bears heading into 2013, here is a look at 10 of the top projected free agents at the position, in no particular order:
• Ryan Clady, Denver Broncos: Bears quarterback Jay Cutler chuckled when a reporter brought up Clady near the end of the regular season. Without question, Cutler would be thrilled if the Bears could find a way to sign his old Broncos teammate Clady, easily one of the best offensive tackles in the game. The 26-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl left tackle rejected a five-year, $50 million deal from the Broncos last summer that included a reported $28 million in guarantees. If the two parties can't reach an agreement this time around, Denver could always apply the franchise tag. But if Clady ever reaches the open market, the Bears, or any other NFL team in need of help at OT, would be foolish not to pursue to him, even though it will cost a ton of money.
• Sebastian Vollmer, New England Patriots: There wasn't a lot of buzz surrounding Vollmer coming out of the University of Houston in 2009, but that didn't stop the Patriots from selecting the 6-foot-8 tackle in the second round, despite the fact he wasn't even invited to the NFL Combine. Vollmer has steadily grown into one of the best right tackles in the game. However, Vollmer has dealt with back issues, which is always a concern when it comes to investing a sizeable amount of money into a player in free agency.
• Will Beatty, New York Giants: Beatty dealt with a couple of injuries his first few years in the league, but the former second-round pick is now considered a solid left tackle with experience playing on both the left and right side of the line. About to turn 28-years old in March, Beatty is sure to generate plenty of interest in free agency if he decides to leave the Giants.
• Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs: Albert has stated publicly he wants to stay in Kansas City, but a lot can happen whenever an NFL franchise goes through a regime change like the one taking place in the Chiefs organization. If Albert is available, the Bears should have all the necessary information to make an informed decision given the fact general manager Phil Emery spent three years in the Kansas City with Albert.
• Gosder Cherilus, Detroit Lions: Although he's been a polarizing figure over the years in Detroit, Cherilus started 71 games for the Lions, missing just five games in five years due to injuries. Detroit is reportedly considering letting Cherilus depart via free agency, and if that happens, he probably won't be out of work for very long.
• Sam Baker, Atlanta Falcons: Another tackle drafted in the first round in 2008 after the Bears selected Chris Williams at No. 14 overall (Albert, Cherilus), Baker lost his starting job in 2011 due to a bad back but rebounded nicely this year for the NFC runner-up Falcons. Baker's back problems are a concern, but he would probably still be viewed as an upgrade over what the Bears currently have on their roster.
• Andre Smith, Cincinnati Bengals: Smith got off to a rough start in the NFL due to a lengthy holdout, weight problems and a bad shirtless photo taken while he ran the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, but the right tackle has settled down (with the exception of being arrested this month for carrying a loaded weapon in an airport) the last two years to become the player the Bengals envisioned they were getting with the No. 6 overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft. Smith is one of the better right tackles in the game and could get the franchise tag, all jokes aside.
• Phil Loadholt, Minnesota Vikings: Loadholt has started 63 of 64 regular season games for the Vikings since they grabbed him in the second round of the 2009 draft. A monster at 6-8, 347 pounds, Loadholt has improved as a pass protector while using his massive frame to open up holes for Adrian Peterson in the ground game. Peterson said publicly he plans to speak with the Vikings about re-signing Loadholt. That's a pretty impressive endorsement.
• Jake Long, Miami Dolphins: Long used to be considered the best left tackle in the league, but the reviews have not been very positive lately. Long's 2012 season ended in December due to a triceps injury. It's unclear what Miami intends to do with Long, who is probably expecting another lucrative contract. But is he worth it?
• Jermon Bushrod, New Orleans Saints: Maybe new Bears offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will push for the Bears to sign the 28-year-old left tackle. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Bushrod suffered from occasional false-start issues, but he is still considered a quality tackle who spent the last several years protecting the blindside of Saints quarterback Drew Brees. An important job to say the least.