LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- As excited as Chicago Bears fans are about the presence of new quarterback Jay Cutler, there is another fresh face they should be keeping an eye on: left tackle Orlando Pace. He signed with the Bears after the St. Louis Rams released him in March. He also brings a Pro Bowl pedigree and a Super Bowl ring to town. What remains to be seen now is whether Pace can be the same player he's been for most of his 12 NFL seasons.
For all of Pace's accolades -- he's a seven-time Pro Bowler who was the foundation of the Rams' offensive line during its glory years -- it's hard to know exactly what he has left. He's 33 years old. He hasn't played a full season since 2005. These are the kinds of facts that simply can't be ignored when you're asking a player to protect the blind side of the most highly anticipated quarterback in team history.
Pace realizes he's at a point in his career where he'll face more questions about his ability. Yet he also believes he's found a place where he can be another vital component of a championship contender.
"This was just a good fit for me because I wasn't just going to go anywhere," Pace said after completing a team workout Wednesday.
"I had talked to Baltimore as well, but coming here really made more sense. Plus, I wanted to win. I was coming from a place where we won five games over the last two years."
That constant losing in St. Louis is what really has motivated Pace to make his mark in Chicago. He says the recent demise of the Rams was both mentally and physically draining, especially for a player who helped that team to two Super Bowls between 1999 and 2001 (including a victory over the Tennessee Titans in that first appearance). Pace also has been around the NFL a long time. He knew his days were numbered in St. Louis when it became clear that the team was starting to rebuild.
After all, Pace missed two games last season because of injuries. A torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder cost him 15 games in 2007. He also sat out eight games during the 2006 season after tearing his left biceps tendon. So when the Rams released him -- a move that saved the team $6 million in cap space and shed them of the first overall pick in the 1997 NFL draft -- it wasn't hard to understand their thinking. They saw a player on the downside of his career.
Pace admits that he seriously pondered his future. He even talked about retirement with former Baltimore Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden when the two ran into each other in Las Vegas last summer. At that time, Ogden recently had retired after a 12-year career that included 11 Pro Bowl appearances. Though Pace wanted to know what drove Ogden from the game, Pace also left that conversation feeling as if he and Ogden were in different places.
Said Pace: "Jonathan told me he just felt like it was time for him to go. He said he had been dealing with a foot injury and that could be hard for an offensive lineman to handle. I also didn't see myself as a guy who was going to go out as just another player that the St. Louis Rams released. I felt like I had more to give."
Pace said the Bears made sense for obvious reasons. First off, he had a solid relationship with head coach Lovie Smith, who had been the Rams' defensive coordinator from 2001 to '03. It also helped that the Bears wanted to keep Pace at left tackle. When he talked to the Ravens earlier this offseason, they made it clear that they viewed him solely as an option at right tackle.
Once Pace signed a reported three-year, $15 million deal in April, he started impressing his coaches with his ability during minicamps and OTA workouts. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner said Pace still has good movement when he's handling pass-rushers, and the coach expects his new left tackle to affect the locker room.
Pace also maintains that his body is ready for a full season again.
"It's a funny thing about injuries," he said. "Once you come back from them, you're just happy to have a chance to be on the field again. That's how I felt last year, and I also feel good now. I evaluated all those [medical questions] before I came here."
That doesn't mean there won't be more questions about Pace once this season begins. There are just too many heightened expectations around this team right now, mainly because Cutler has brought so much optimism to the city with his arrival. Bears fans see Cutler's presence -- along with the presence of other young players such as running back Matt Forte and tight end Greg Olsen -- and figure that Chicago's offense finally can be a capable complement to its defense. It's an easy scenario to embrace.
But plenty of issues remain for the Bears to resolve on offense. They don't have much experience at wide receiver, and the offensive line could have three new starters. Of course, a major factor is whether Pace really can be as reliable as he once was. If he can, Bears fans really will have reason to be giddy.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.