With reports that right tackle John Tait is seriously considering retirement after 10 NFL seasons, re-signing veteran John St. Clair takes on much greater importance for the Chicago Bears, as does the offensive line position in the April draft.
St. Clair, who started all 16 games last season at left tackle, is due to become an unrestricted free agent on Feb. 27. With last year's first-round pick, Chris Williams, penciled in as the starting left tackle for the coming season, St. Clair is a logical choice to switch back to right tackle. That was his primary position before he was moved to the left side last year when Williams suffered a back injury on the second day of training camp that required surgery and kept him sidelined for the first half of the season.
Tait, 34, started all 16 games at right tackle last season and has missed just seven games in five seasons with the Bears. He was the starter at right tackle in his first season with the Bears (2004) and then moved to left tackle for the next three seasons before switching back to the right side last season.
If Tait is subtracted from the equation and St. Clair signs with another team, it would leave the Bears with just one offensive tackle - Williams - who has ever started an NFL game. If Tait retires, the Bears would save $5.35 million in salary cap money, which would go a long way toward making a competitive offer to St. Clair for two or three more seasons.
St. Clair, 31, has also started games at left guard for the Bears and has expressed his desire to remain in Chicago. Left tackle was predicted to be a major trouble spot for the Bears last season when St. Clair was forced into a starting role there after spending his first three seasons with the team as a backup tackle. With a couple of exceptions, when he struggled against the Vikings' Jared Allen, St. Clair played better than others expected. But his performance didn't surprise the nine-year veteran from Virginia.
"I have confidence in my ability; I always have, and I thought I proved it in the past," St. Clair said. "If you have questions, it's part of the game. But I always have confidence in my game."
As a unit, the Bears' offensive line was adequate last season, but because of the ages of Tait, St. Clair and 11-year veteran center Olin Kreutz (31), it is an area the Bears are expected to address in the draft. It becomes a greater concern if Tait retires, and it becomes a critical need if they lose St. Clair, who believes the o-line performed well as a group last season.
"You have your ups and downs, but that's the way it is with everybody, I don't care if you're a Pro Bowler or what. I think I played pretty well, but we play as a line, as a group, so it's about all of us, and I think we've played well all year."
The Bears were 26th in yards per game last season, tied for 14th in points and 12th in preventing sacks.