Without a doubt, the single most pressing need for the Chicago Bears this offseason is to fix the offensive line. While strides were made in 2012 and the guys like J'Marcus Webb played above and beyond what you can expect of him, it needs to get better.
One of the quickest ways to do this is to dive into free agency, and there are many solid tackles who are there for the signing. We'll be looking at a bunch of them over the next few weeks as we inch closer to free agency and kick things off with Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long.
Long was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2008 draft, stepping immediately into a starting role and making a name for himself by becoming a Pro Bowler in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
He struggled in 2011, despite his Pro Bowl selection, and continued to do so in 2012 before being placed on injured reserve at the beginning of December due to a torn triceps. After having started every game for the Dolphins since being drafted, Long has missed six games over the last two years.
It's assumed Long will be asking for a pretty big signing bonus and around $10 million per year, which isn't too much for an All-Pro left tackle, but it might seem steep for one who hasn't played like it the last two years.
It might also seem steep for a Bears team that has some salary-cap issues coming into 2013.
However, with Ryan Clady, Brandon Albert, Sebastian Vollmer and Andre Smith also unrestricted free agents, the market might be one which leaves Long out in the cold. Add to that his recent injury issues and subpar play, and perhaps Long might find himself taking less than he'd like.
Of course, if the Bears (or any other team) want a player, there are always ways to make that happen.
The simple truth is that even in a shortened, injury-filled year, Long is an improvement over what the Bears have now.
Pro Football Focus has Long rated one spot higher than Webb (subscription link) despite four less games and a less talented offense. Of course, it's impossible to say how things might have played out if Long had stayed healthy, but his ability is far greater than either Webb's or Gabe Carimi's at right tackle (who was ranked 74th by PFF compared to Long's 46th ranking).
Most importantly is that while Long isn't nearly as good a run-blocker as he used to be, he is very solid protecting the passer, something sorely needed in Chicago.
It certainly seems as if Long could be a good fit (from a football standpoint) for the Bears.
To get a little more insight, I reached out to AFC East lead writer Erik Frenz, who had this to say about Long and his potential for the Bears:
Jake Long was one of the most dominant left tackles in the NFL for the first four seasons of his career. Then 2012 happened. A triceps injury ended what was a down year for Long, and now there are questions as to whether he will return to form in 2013 and beyond. Regardless, it would be impossible to argue he's a worse option than J'Marcus Webb. Jay Cutler has played well behind an awful offensive line for years, imagine how he'd look behind an even halfway-decent one.
The offensive tackle position is one of the most coveted in the NFL, so Long and his agent will most likely be looking for top dollar on the open market. Whoever gets him will be taking a risk, but with solid tackle play at a premium (especially for a needy team like the Bears), perhaps there's an incentive-laden happy medium that could be reached.
As Frenz points out, there is definitely a little risk in signing a guy who has been banged up for two seasons, though a torn triceps is much different than, say, a lingering hamstring.
And as we've said several times in this piece, the financials have to work out.
However, the other worthwhile tackles are, for the most part, going to cost even more money. Clady, Vollmer and Smith are all rated far higher by PFF, and while Albert isn't up that high, he's rated a lot higher than Long.
The other way to go is upgrading via the NFL draft, but the Bears are a great example of how often that doesn't work out.
Consider also that Long is just 27 years old. While he is certainly closer to the end of his career than the beginning, he has plenty of time left, and some tackles can play well into their 30s (though with his injuries, that seems doubtful).
Even if he taps out in three years, that is three years of play at either tackle spot, which is far better than what is there now. And really, how much of a window do the Bears and Jay Cutler have anyway?
Without a doubt, there is risk in this move and the Bears would have to overcome multiple financial hurdles to make this happen.
It's definitely worth a look, though, and even if Long isn't what he was back in 2008, he's an immediate upgrade over what Chicago has at tackle right now.