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Bears might have competition for Olin Kreutz

Center OlKreutz has been fixture Bears’ offensive line for 14 seasons. He will be free agent when lockout ends. |

Center Olin Kreutz has been a fixture on the Bears’ offensive line for 14 seasons. He will be a free agent when the lockout ends. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 1, 2011 2:14AM

There’s a sentiment that Olin Kreutz re-signing with the Bears is a slam dunk whenever the lockout ends and free agency begins.

Kreutz is on the record stating his desire to return for a 14th season with the only NFL club he has played for, and the Bears are on the record bolstering his importance to the team. In late May, Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher told the Sun-Times, “We’ve got to get Olin back. He’s been a core guy since I’ve been here.”

But like extra points and tap-ins, slam dunks aren’t gimmes.

With the lockout dragging into July, the Bears might face some competition for Kreutz and will need to carefully plot out how to handle negotiations with him as soon as free agency opens.

First, without OTAs and minicamps, teams will be scrambling to solidify their starting lineups, especially up front. No position is more important on the line than center. Kreutz is a proven leader who has played in several offenses.

Second, there are a handful of teams that might be in the market for a veteran center. The San Francisco 49ers have a hole because center Eric Heitmann is reportedly out for the season because of a neck injury and backup David Baas, who filled in adequately last year, is a free agent. In addition, Jonathan Goodwin of the New Orleans Saints and Lyle Sendlein of the Arizona Cardinals are free agents, and Casey Weigmann of the Kansas City Chiefs might retire. Other teams — most notably the Tennessee Titans — might be looking to upgrade that position.

Third, if players get the high salary-cap floor in a new CBA, many teams will need to spend money. One quick and easy solution is to sign a quality veteran to a short-term contract.

Kreutz completed a three-year extension that averaged about $5.8 million a season.

So what is Kreutz worth?

That’s hard to gauge.

Pro Football Focus rated him 33rd among centers who had more than 250 snaps last season, largely because of penalties and run blocking. But the website had him eighth in pass protection. Yet toward the end of the season, Kreutz’s teammates and coaches universally suggested that he was the club’s top offensive lineman, a distinction tempered by quarterback Jay Cutler taking a league-high 52 sacks.

Besides, the Bears don’t have an heir apparent. The presumption is that Roberto Garza or Edwin Williams would play center if Kreutz doesn’t return.

Asked in January if he wants to return to the Bears, Kreutz said, “Everybody knows that. I’ve chosen the Bears how many times over other teams? Everybody knows, all things equal, but . . . I’m not tremendously worried, and we’ll just go with what happens.”

For his part, Kreutz has done what he can.

Two weeks after the Bears were defeated in the NFC title game at Soldier Field, he reported to Poliquin Performance Center in Northfield and initiated his offseason workout program.

Only this year’s was different from the previous three.

Kreutz usually needed at least a month to recover from a surgery or rehabilitate an injury before ramping up a program that focuses on speed, strength and power. But Kreutz, who had a bone spur removed from his Achilles during the 2010 offseason, largely made it through the season unscathed.

“I’ve trained him for four years,” Poliquin owner Mike Bystol said, “and this is by far the best shape I’ve seen him in.

“Each year, we have to do a little something. But this year, he was ­injury free, and we trained hard right away.”

For instance, last year, he was not able to push a sled with weights because of surgery. This year, he’s pushing 400 pounds.

“He’s light years ahead of where he was last year,” Bystol said.

Kreutz trains with Bystol four to five days a week, and he works an additional six or seven hours without Poliquin, Bystol added.

In January, Kreutz said he would test free agency “if forced to, you do what comes your way.”

And knowing his personality, the Bears have to be careful what they offer him.

The league’s highest-paid center is Nick Mangold, who signed a seven-year, $55 million contract with the New York Jets last year that included $22.5 million in guarantees.

Kreutz won’t get anything close to that, of course.

But the Bears could insult Kreutz with a low-ball offer.

The Baltimore Ravens lured Matt Birk away from the Minnesota Vikings with a three-year $12 million contract, half of which was guaranteed. But there were concerns about Birk’s health because of hernia and hip injuries.

That probably won’t be enough for Kreutz.

But the challenge for the Bears — if they want Kreutz back — is to find a happy medium.

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