Bears need blockers more than Mendenhall

By Jeremy Werner

It seems like a perfect fit, such a simple change.

Commissioner Roger Goodell steps onto the podium at Radio City Music Hall a little more than two hours into the first round of Saturday’s NFL Draft.

“With the 14th pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears select … Rashard Mendenhall, running back, the University of Illinois.”

In a seemingly perfect world for those who cheer for Illinois and Da Bears, Mendenhall will keep the orange and trade in his Illini blue for the slightly darker navy of the Monsters of the Midway.

It makes so much sense. The Bears need a talented running back to push the embattled Cedric Benson – the fourth overall pick in 2005 – and Mendenhall has the size, speed and toughness between the tackles that NFL scouts drool over.

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    ESPN’s resident draft, and hair gel, guru, Mel Kiper Jr., currently lists Mendenhall as the 10th-best draft-eligible player.

    An even more added bonus: None of the 13 teams in front of the Bears are in dire need of a running back, so Mendenhall is almost a certain lock to be available.

    So it’s a done deal, right? Not so much. In fact, the odds that the former Illinois star becomes a Bear are slimmer than the odds of Rex Grossman holding an MVP trophy in his career.

    As nice as it would be to see an in-state product play for Chicago, the Bears have a glaring need on the offensive line. Veteran offensive lineman Fred Miller, 35, and Ruben Brown, 36, digressed with age and are no longer on the Chicago roster.

    The Bears’ running game was the third worst in the NFL last season with just 83.1 yards per game on the ground, while the offensive line allowed 43 sacks, ninth worst in the league. To make matters worse, the offense accounted for 111 penalties, most from false-start calls, which was good for fifth worst in the NFL.

    It is no coincidence the Bears running game diminished as the offensive line aged.

    The Bears’ yards-per-carry average has declined dramatically in the last two seasons. In 2005, the Bears rushed for 4.3 yards per carry. That total diminished to a 3.8-yard average in 2006, and then to a paltry 3.1-yard average in 2007.

    Benson’s average dipped from 4.1 yards per carry in both 2005 and 2006 to 3.4 in 2007, while backup Adrian Peterson’s 5-yard average in ’05 and ’06 to a 3.4-yard average last season.

    So much for the Bears being a run-first team.

    Currently, Roberto Garza, Terrence Metcalf and second-year player Josh Beekman will compete for time at guard, while John St. Clair is slated as the starting offensive tackle.

    Yikes! Center Olin Kreutz and tackle John Tait cannot block everybody.

    The Bears must address the offensive line in the first round Saturday. Mendenhall would give the Bears a nice talent in the backfield, but who’s he going to run behind?

    Although former Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long is set to become the first overall pick for the Miami Dolphins, pick No. 14 gives the Bears an excellent opportunity to add a possible Pro-Bowl offensive lineman.

    Scouts, Inc. rates four additional lineman in its top 18 prospects. Versatile lineman Branden Albert of Virginia and Boise State’s athletic Ryan Clady would be steals for the Bears. Even if they are not available, Pittsburgh’s Jeff Otah and Vanderbilt’s Chris Williams would be an immediate improvement on the offensive line and give the Bears a likely starter for years to come.

    Although selecting an offensive lineman is an “unsexy” pick, it is a must for the Bears if they want anything that resembles an NFL offense.

    Tom Brady would not be the same quarterback if he did not have three Pro Bowl offensive linemen giving him as much time as he needs to find an open receiver.

    LaDainian Tomlinson would not be able to rush for as many yards as he does without a strong offensive line bulldozing would-be tacklers.

    It’s time for the Bears to invest their future into one of the lesser-known necessities for a winning franchise.

    It’s time for the Bears to put the fate of their offense on one of the big uglies.

    It makes sense, even more sense than drafting Rashard Mendenhall. After all, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound offensive lineman can carry more weight on his shoulders than a 5-foot-10, 220-pound running back.

    Jeremy Werner is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]