- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPNChicago.com kicks off its Bears draft preview series with a look at the offensive tackles.
By their actions, the Chicago Bears changed the team's rhetoric going into this year's draft from the tune it sang headed into 2012 under former coach Lovie Smith.
In the months preceding the 2012 draft, the Bears opted against bringing in a left tackle during free agency.
"That would be saying we don't feel comfortable with our left tackle," Smith said at the time.
The new coaching regime, under Marc Trestman apparently, doesn't care about sending the wrong message. The club made that clear in March, when it signed former New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod to the richest contract in team history (five years, $35.9 million with $17.7 million guaranteed) for an offensive lineman. The deal forces former starting left tackle J'Marcus Webb into a situation in which he'll compete for a starting job on the right side against Gabe Carimi and Jonathan Scott. At the time of the Bushrod acquisition, general manager Phil Emery said the move gave the team flexibility for the upcoming draft.
But that doesn't guarantee the Bears won't feel the need to add at tackle, a position which has woefully underachieved in recent years, culminating in Jay Cutler absorbing an average of 37 sacks in four seasons at the helm; 20 more than the average during his first three years prior to landing in Chicago.
"The offensive line class has strength in the front end when you look at it from tackle, guard and center," Emery said. "There are a number of players who could be in the mix as starters."
If one of those prospects falls into the club's lap at 20, chances are it pounces given the premium the Bears seem to be placing on adequately protecting Cutler.
According to sources, the Bears have already brought in or scheduled pre-draft visits with mainly offensive linemen and linebackers. While it's unclear whether the team plans to add yet another tackle to the mix, it's worth noting that Webb and Scott's contracts expire in 2013, while Carimi -- who could be in for a fight just to make the team, and is set to earn $1.016 million this season -- comes up on the end of his deal in 2014.
The next 10: 11. Jordan Mills, Louisiana Tech, 6-5, 316; 12. David Quessenberry, San Jose State, 6-5, 302; 13. Reid Fragel, Ohio State, 6-6, 308; 14. Tanner Hawkinson, Kansas, 6-5, 298; 15. Emmett Cleary, Boston College, 6-7, 316; 16. John Wetzel, 6-7, 315, Boston College; 17. Braden Brown, 6-5, 310, Brigham Young; 18. Nick Becton, 6-5, 323, Virginia Tech; 19. Vinston Painter, 6-4, 3-6, Virginia Tech; 20. Jamaal Johnson-Webb, 6-5, 313, Alabama A&M.
Position grade: B+
Analysis: The acquisition of Bushrod definitely strengthens the offensive line, by forcing Webb to compete for a job at right tackle. But none of the competitors on that side of the line have shown any consistency over a sustained period, which wouldn't make it a bad idea for the Bears to add even more competition at right tackle through the draft.
Webb and Scott are set to enter the final year of their contracts, while Carimi will make the largest base salary ($1.016 million) of his contract -- which runs through 2014 -- in 2013; making him a candidate to be cut if he doesn't perform. Several players capable of starting as rookies such as Alabama's D.J. Fluker, and Florida State's Menelik Watson could be available late in the first round. While it's unlikely the Bears draft an offensive tackle at No. 20, the talent expected to be still available there could prove too tempting to pass on.