In few training camps this summer could you make a statement as definitive as this one: The Bears, who reached the NFC Championship Game last season, will go only as far as their offensive tackles will take them.
A defense that was tied for third in the league in turnovers forced, fourth in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed returns nearly intact, with the chief departure being free-agent safety Danieal Manning. On offense, former Cowboys wideouts Roy Williams and Sam Hurd are in, and tight end Greg Olsen is out. Call it a wash. Though Olsen is an offensive weapon in the eyes of most personnel men, coordinator Mike Martz likes his tight ends to serve as extra blockers, not downfield receivers.
Which brings us to quarterback Jay Cutler's brace of 23-year-old personal protectors: 6'8", 333-pound left tackle J'Marcus Webb, a seventh-round pick from West Texas A&M in 2010, and 6'7", 316-pound right tackle Gabe Carimi from Wisconsin, a first-round choice this year. Playing mostly on the right side, Webb was part of a porous (to put it mildly) position in Chicago last season. According to the website ProFootballFocus.com, the Bears' tackles (starters Webb and Frank Omiyale, backups Chris Williams and Kevin Shafer) were responsible for 25 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 98 hurries—the worst performance in the league.
So in the off-season, line coach Mike Tice went looking for help, and he didn't have to go out of his way to find it. In visits to see his son, Nate, a backup quarterback at Wisconsin, Tice was transfixed by Carimi. "Very, very tough kid," he says. "I knew he'd be able to handle the pressure and the demands of being a tackle in this league right away." Chicago took Carimi with the 29th pick, and Tice immediately envisioned him on the right side instead of the more exposed left, which will lessen expectations on him as a rookie. Martz, after scouting Carimi, said he was "as good a run blocker as I've ever seen come out of college football."
That meant shifting the more athletic Webb to protect Cutler's blind side, even though Webb struggled last season after being picked as a project. "We knew how bad he was going to be early because he had so far to come," says Martz. "And he was terrible early. But he was spiking up in the last eight games. He's more comfortable on the left, a more natural left tackle, so the move was the logical one to us."
In the preseason opener against the Bills, Chicago allowed four first-half sacks, two of which came as Webb struggled to block Buffalo's outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. Afterward, explaining his performance, Webb said he hadn't matched Merriman's intensity. That answer did not sit well with Tice. At all. "He's got to understand we put a world of weight on his shoulders," Tice says. "He needs to step up and play better, and he needs to grow up quicker. He's out on the island with our philosophy this year, hoping that we don't [have to] keep backs in and chip. He needs to buck up."
There's no other way to spin it. Handing the toughest position on the O-line to the 17th tackle taken in the 2010 draft is one of those calculated risks that will keep Tice, Martz, coach Lovie Smith and G.M. Jerry Angelo awake nights until they see Webb do the job well week in and week out this fall. Will Martz help by keeping in extra tight ends? Sure. But there are going to be moments early and often when Webb will find himself one-on-one against some fearsome pass rushers: John Abraham of the Falcons in Week 1, Clay Matthews of the Packers and Jared Allen of the Vikings twice, plus the Eagles' Trent Cole and Kansas City's Tamba Hali. Those five players had 62 sacks among them in 2010—a load for any left tackle, never mind one who's just learning the ropes.
Webb has good feet and a good punch with strong arms. What he doesn't yet do is apply the same effort snap after snap. Against that schedule of sackers, he'll have to.
Webb is a smart kid—Angelo says he scored 1,300 on the SAT out of high school ("That's the old SAT, out of 1,600 points")—who understands what he's facing. "I don't let the pressure get to me," Webb said after the Buffalo debacle. "I focus on improving every practice. I've done that this week after what happened against the Bills. I've blocked it all out after last week's game. I'm operating on Coach Tice's six P's: Perfect Practice Prevents Piss-Poor Performance."
Webb sounds convinced he can shoulder the burden. "When the lights come on and it's time to compete," he said, "I'll be there."