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Bears address their greatest need
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff

Vanderbilt offensive tackle Chris Williams is told on the phone that he had been selected by the Chicago Bears as the 14th pick in the NFL football draft Saturday.

 

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Published: 4/27/2008 12:04 AM

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With their first draft pick the Bears addressed their greatest need.

They selected Vanderbilt's Chris Williams 14th overall in the hope that he can step into the starting spot at left tackle very soon if not immediately.

"We went into this with our No. 1 need as left tackle after we discussed our team at length," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "We wanted to get a tackle, and obviously if we had our choice, it would be a left tackle."

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The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Williams received high marks from scouts for his athleticism, and especially his nimble footwork, which may make him the most natural left tackle in the draft, able to handle the burden of protecting a right-handed quarterback's blind side. Williams was not rated nearly as highly for his run blocking, where his strength and physical play weren't as impressive as his agility.

After starting the past three seasons at Vanderbilt, the last two at left tackle, Williams is confident he can do the same for the Bears, although he doesn't consider himself the left tackle starter yet.

"I don't know if I anticipate that, but I feel like they drafted me to come in and fill that need," Williams said. "I'm definitely coming in and trying to start, and I'm assuming that's why they picked me in the first round. Most teams don't waste first-round picks on guys that don't play, so that's my intention coming in."

It's coach Lovie Smith's intention, too.

"He's played at a high level in the SEC for a long time at the left tackle position, which he'll play for us," Smith said. "Chris is pretty driven to be one of the better players to play the position."

John Tait has been the Bears' starting left tackle for the past three seasons, but he's 33 and might be more effective moving back to right tackle, where he started from 2002-04.

The Bears cut last year's right tackle Fred Miller and didn't offer a new contract to left guard Ruben Brown, so they have a major renovation project up front. Tait and journeyman John St. Clair, who ended last season starting at guard after Terrence Metcalf flopped, are the only tackles on the roster who have played in an NFL game.

So the Bears were pleasantly surprised at No. 14 to have their choice of three quality offensive tackles in what Angelo called, "The best year of offensive tackles that I've seen in my (28-year) tenure in the league."

Even though two offensive tackles went before the Bears picked - Jake Long No. 1 to the Dolphins and Ryan Clady 12th to the Broncos - they still had their choice of Williams, Pitt's Jeff Otah and Virginia's Branden Albert, all of whom were considered top-15 picks by many teams.

Albert was primarily a guard at Virginia, although he proved to most scouts in postseason testing and drills that he had the athleticism to make the transition to left tackle. Otah played left tackle for two years at Pitt, but he may project to the right side in the NFL because he lacks some speed and athleticism. The Bears went with Williams because he was a better fit for their needs.

Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand worked out all three players, but the Bears put more resources into getting to know Williams. And although they put him under the microscope, the Bears found no blemishes on Williams, completely clearing him medically and giving him high marks for character.

"We liked all three players very much, and it was just a matter of taking the player with the best history at the position and the player we knew the best," Angelo said. "In the off-season we're looking to shoot holes in all these players. We probably shot fewer holes in (Williams) than we did the other two, so in the end we felt he was the best player for us."

Williams also impressed the Bears with his intelligence and serious approach. The newlywed postponed his honeymoon so it wouldn't conflict with the draft and rookie minicamp, which the Bears will hold next weekend.

Some critics questioned his toughness when he didn't retaliate after he was punched by a defensive lineman during a practice for the Senior Bowl in January, but that was a non-issue for the Bears.

"I just think that's looking under rocks for things," Angelo said. "That's not going to be his problem. It's more his demeanor than his competitive nature. He's a very competitive player. You won't get anybody at Vanderbilt who would question his toughness. You can't put a tape on (of game action) and question his toughness. That's not an issue.

"If left tackles fail, it's because they're not talented enough and they can't pass protect, but we certainly feel fine about Chris' competitive nature."

Williams attributes his lack of retaliation to self-control.

"At Vanderbilt we don't fight on the field or at practice or in the games just because that's going to cost you the next game (because of suspension)," he said. "That's just discipline as a player.

"Obviously I would like to take his head off, but at the same time you have to show discipline as a player and be smarter than that and not take a 15-yard penalty and miss a game. That's bigger than my personal beef with whoever I'm getting in a fight with."