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Monday, March 7, 2011
Chris Williams: An expensive utility man?

By Kevin Seifert

Before we spend any more time on the Chicago Bears' need to select at least one offensive linemen early in next month's draft, we need to ask a seemingly obvious question: Didn't they do that three years ago?

Indeed, in 2008, the Bears made a draft decision that should have supplied them an anchor for the next decade. They selected Vanderbilt left tackle Chris Williams with the No. 14 overall pick, but his well-chronicled struggles since then are a big reason the Bears' line faces so much uncertainty this spring.

Chris Williams
Where Chris Williams will play along the offensive line in 2011 remains uncertain.
As you probably know by now, Williams' first NFL start didn't come until 2009 -- and it was at right tackle. He started the final five games of 2009 and the first two games of 2010 at left tackle before the Bears moved him to left guard out of short-term desperation.

In what should sound alarm bells about Williams' future, the Bears still haven't decided where they want Williams to play in 2011. Presumably, that decision will depend on the draft and the results of free agency. You could be an optimist and suggest Williams offers the Bears valuable flexibility, or you could join me in skepticism and wonder if he is now an expensive utility man.

At the scouting combine last month, coach Lovie Smith seemed certain that Williams will have a defined role in 2011 -- at some position. But his full comment on the subject isn't something you want to hear about a former first-round pick.

"I'll just say that we have a few options, a few directions we can go," Smith said. "Chris has played both tackle positions, has played guard for us. Might've played little center in college. We don't have to make those decisions right now. We just know that Chris is a part of our future ... once we lock him in to a position, maybe the one he's in right now. [Offensive line coach] Mike Tice did a super job molding an offensive line this past year and I'm anxious to see as we continue to talk on exactly where we end up playing him."

To be fair, I'm not sure if seven starts at left tackle over three seasons is enough to determine whether Williams is a bust at the position he was drafted to play. It's also hard to attribute his position moves purely to performance; in each instance they were related to a larger plan.

In 2009, for instance, the Bears needed a second starting tackle and decided their best option was veteran free agent Orlando Pace. Rather than shift Pace from his longtime position on the left side, the Bears chose Williams. Last season, the Bears had more game-ready tackles than guards. So when Williams returned from a hamstring injury in Week 6, they determined they were better off with Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb at tackle, and Williams at left guard, than with Webb on the bench and an unworthy guard -- be it Lance Louis or Edwin Williams -- on the field.

With all that said, if the Bears still consider Williams a future anchor to their line, they will lock him into a position soon and keep him there. The longer they hold off that decision, the less confident I will feel about his future.

Smith seemed to be indicating left guard as a real possibility, and I would be fine with that. The No. 14 overall pick of a draft is a little high to find your future left guard, but it would be far worse if it's where the Bears drafted a future utility backup.