Two of the top tackles that teams were waiting to select in April's NFL draft, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan, have decided to stay in school for their senior seasons. That changes things for the Chicago Bears.
Despite missing the playoffs for the second straight season, the Bears still had a good enough year to be picking at No. 20 in the first round. Did they play themselves out of the chance to draft a top tackle?
Luke Joeckel won't fall to the Bears, leaving Eric Fisher from Central Michigan and Lane Johnson from Oklahoma as the top targets at the position. Instead, the Bears should see what they can do in free agency.
While it may be tough to land Denver's Ryan Clady, the former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long, Branden Albert and Sebastian Vollmer are players the Bears could obtain.
Albert has played for a bad Chiefs team, but the running game has always been strong with Jamaal Charles. Albert is a solid pass-protector, something the Bears desperately need, and at 28, he still has several good years left in him.
As for Vollmer, he has battled injuries throughout his career but when healthy, he is a very good right tackle. If the Bears are willing to outbid the Patriots for his services, he would be a player worth signing.
The player the Bears must make every effort to sign is Long. Sure, the Dolphins could apply their franchise tag to him, but that would cost them north of $15 million. Because of that, odds are Jake Long plays in a different uniform next year.
Long would be a big upgrade over J'Marcus Webb, and the signing would allow the Bears to use their first-round pick on another player, someone like Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree.
Bears fans may not like hearing their team call out a position other than offensive line in the first round on draft night, but a player like Long or Albert seems a better choice than drafting Fisher or Johnson. Beyond that, there are several quality options at tackle who will be available in later rounds. Chris Faulk from LSU, Menelik Watson out of Florida State and Colorado's David Bakhtiari would all be good choices.
If the Bears aren't able to land a player like Long or Albert through free agency, they may have to draft someone like Fisher or Johnson in the first round. But free agency comes first, and the Bears need to open the wallet in order to get Jay Cutler the protection he'll need next season.
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