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Pompei: Free-agent left tackles could entice Bears

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 10:33 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

(MCT) — INDIANAPOLIS — The left tackles will be on parade here at the NFL scouting combine like beauty pageant contestants on a runway through Tuesday.

Lumpy, hairy, 4-XL contestants, that is.

The draft prospects will go through the drills, interview and undergo physicals.

The veteran free agent offensive tackles won’t be here, but their agents will be. And they will be trying like pitchmen in mall kiosks try to sell cell phone minutes.

That means a lot of left tackles will be shopped over the next six days.

But the Bears might not end up with one who can beat out J’Marcus Webb in training camp.

That’s right, Webb is starting to look like he might have the pole position to be the Bears starter next season.

Why is that?

Let’s start with the draft.

There are three left tackles considered NFL-ready in the 2013 draft — Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M, Eric Fisher of Central Michigan and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma. What has become apparent in recent weeks, and is likely to become more apparent over the course of the combine, is the trio of tackles will be off the board by the middle of the first round.

That would be several picks before the 20th spot the Bears hold.

D.J. Fluker of Alabama also is likely to be a first-round pick, but he is believed to be a right tackle and likely would not be a threat if the Bears selected him.

There are others in the draft who eventually could develop into starting left tackles, most notably Florida State’s Menelik Watson, Arkansas Pine-Bluff’s Terron Armstead, Syracuse’s Justin Pugh and Wisconsin’s Ricky Wagner. But NFL executives aren’t currently talking them up as first rounders.

That brings us to free agency.

This free-agent class has the potential to be great. But a lot will happen before March 12, the official start of free agency.

The best free agent left tackle clearly is Ryan Clady, the player the Broncos chose in the 2008 draft two picks ahead of where the Bears selected Chris Williams. Broncos vice president John Elway already has said the team will use the franchise tag if necessary to keep him.

The Clady situation illustrates the real problem in finding a free agent left tackle. Any team that has a good one probably is going to do everything it can to keep him.

But what could work in the Bears’ favor is the salary cap is remaining flat this year, meaning teams will have less flexibility than they often have had in the past.

The Saints and Giants have cap issues and the franchise tag is not an appealing alternative to solve their left tackle dilemmas. Still, both teams have made it clear resigning their left tackles is a top priority.

In the case of the Saints, Jermon Bushrod is critical to the success of an offense that throws the ball more than any other in the NFL. If Bushrod were to become available, he almost certainly would be a prime target for the Bears and many others.

Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer developed and coached the 2007 fourth-round pick into a two-time Pro Bowler with the Saints.

Giants owner John Mara has said his team probably will not use the tag, but it is expected to make a strong effort to retain left tackle Will Beatty. He is not at the same level as Bushrod, but Beatty is a starting caliber pass protector with quickness and athleticism.

Another left tackle who could shake free is Brandon Albert of the Chiefs. While it has been reported the Chiefs are trying to sign him, a case could be made for letting him go.

Bears general manager Phil Emery is familiar with Albert, having arrived as Chiefs college scouting director the year after Albert was drafted.

Whether Albert is a significant upgrade over Webb is debatable.

Of course what Webb is also is debatable. If you take away the first game against the Packers and the game against the 49ers, you would call him a sufficient starter.

He needs to be, because he may be the Bears’ best option again.

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