The New Orleans Saints, still reeling from the expose of the bounty program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, were forced to use the franchise tag on quarterback Drew Brees when they could not reach agreement with Brees on a long-term contract. That means that both wide receiver Marques Colston and two-time Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks will be available in free agency.
The Bears passed on Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters last season after Waters was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs at the start of training camp. Waters signed with the Patriots and made the Pro Bowl for the sixth time last season -- in part because of former general manager Jerry Angelo's desire to let his younger players develop. (An ironic tack considering the Bears' inability to develop any offensive linemen during Angelo's tenure -- or to even keep the best prospects healthy -- was a major factor that led to Angelo's firing after last season).
It'll be interesting if new general manager Phil Emery has a different philosophy -- like acquiring the best guy to do the job. The Bears figure to stick with Gabe Carimi and J'Marcus Webb as their starting tackles -- both have shown enough to warrant giving them time to develop. Lance Louis also has earned a full-season's look at right guard after holding his own at guard and tackle last season. Veteran Roberto Garza received Pro Bowl consideration in his first year at center and figures to be locked in there for 2012.
That leaves left guard as the biggest room for an upgrade, which is exactly where Carl Nicks has played since he entered the NFL in 2008 as a fifth-round draft pick. Chris Williams, whom the Bears drafted 150 picks ahead of Nicks in 2008 as an offensive tackle, started the first nine games of last season at left guard before suffering a season-ending dislocated wrist. Edwin Williams, an undrafted free agent the Bears picked up in 2010 after he was cut by the Redskins, started the final seven games.
It's hard to judge offensive linemen from the cheap seats. But while both Williamses were at least good enough for the Bears to win with, neither is close to the level of Nicks. Adding a 27-year-old two-time Pro Bowler who has played in 70 consecutive games (67 starts) since entering the NFL is usually considered an upgrade.