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Phil Emery and Lovie Smith are OK with Bears’ offensive line

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler picks himself up after getting roughed up by Lions tackle Nick Fairley third quarter Chicago Bears

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler picks himself up after getting roughed up by Lions tackle Nick Fairley in the third quarter of the Chicago Bears 37-13 win over Detroit Lions Sunday November 13, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 30, 2012 9:48AM

PALM BEACH, Fla. — For the second consecutive season, the Bears were ranked last in the protection index.

The team’s pass protection improved from a rating of 33.1 in 2010 to 43.2 in 2011, but the Bears were far behind the reigning leader, the New Orleans Saints, who had a score of 88.0.

There has been no indication that the Bears expressed any interest in top free agents such as Jared Gaither, Eric Winston or Levi Brown. And at the owners meetings, general manager Phil Emery and coach Lovie Smith backed the current group of offensive linemen.

“I’m very encouraged,” Emery said. “We have two young players at offensive tackle that are both very talented. Both are big, physical players. They’re the kind of players that you’re looking for.”

Emery then noted the experience of the interior linemen.

“In personnel, you’ve always got to have in the back of your mind, ‘What’s the doomsday plan?’ ” Emery said. “That’s why we made such an effort to increase our depth at quarterback and running back.”

If there were a panic button related to the Bears’ offensive line, it would’ve fallen apart from overuse by fans and analysts.

But here’s the reality: This isn’t fantasy football.

The 2012 salary cap is $120.6 million, and the Bears have less than $10 million in space.

Would defensive end Mario Williams have made the Bears better?

Would Gaither have made the Bears better?

What about Kamerion Wimbley, Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson?

Yes, in each case.

But the Bears had to prioritize given their salary-cap health, both short- and long-term.

Williams would’ve been the plum, the one free agent who could’ve made the greatest impact. Pairing him with Julius Peppers would’ve given the Bears a huge advantage and created nightmares for every 2012 opponent. Sign him, then draft a receiver in the first round. While the Bears were interested in Williams, the Bills offered him more than anyone else, a six-year, $100 million contract.

A No. 1 receiver was a very close second priority, and the Bears aggressively addressed that by trading two third-round picks for Brandon Marshall. And while the Bears saved some money by inheriting his contract instead of signing him via free agency, Marshall still makes a princely sum, $9.3 million in 2012. The Bears, as Emery noted, also addressed other key areas of concern, signing quarterback Jason Campbell, running back Michael Bush, linebacker Blake Costanzo and receiver Eric Weems, as well as re-signing safety Craig Steltz and cornerback Tim Jennings.

Can they get better still?

Of course.

There are plenty of free agents still available, and the Bears have a pick in every round in next month’s draft. Besides, Smith pointed out that two first-round picks — Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams — will return after missing most of last season with injuries.

As for left tackle J’Marcus Webb, who allowed 12 sacks last season, Smith is optimistic the 2010 seventh-round pick will improve.

“There are some things you have to do to help him out a little bit more at times, which we plan to do,” Smith said. “So you can make a case and throw out stats on what he did.”

The Bears’ confidence lies in Mike Tice, who was promoted from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator. With the assistance of new offensive line coach Tim Holt, the Bears expect that Webb, Carimi and other linemen having a full offseason — unlike last year with the lockout — will expedite their development, not only individually but as a unit.

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