Assembling offensive line interesting task for Bears
Assembling offensive line interesting task for Bears
There are bunch of pieces but how will they come together?
By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter
4:26 p.m. CDT, July 15, 2012
Sixth in a 14-part series leading up to the start of Bears training camp.
The further the Bears get away from their appearance in Super Bowl XLI, the better the offensive line for that team, built almost exclusively through pro free agency, looks.
It wasn't the best line in the league but the mixture of castoffs, one bargain find, a big-ticket player and anchor center Olin Kreutz, drafted before the Jerry Angelo regime began, formed a strong unit.
Credit for most of those additions belongs to former pro personnel director Bobby DePaul, who led the movement to sign Ruben Brown after the Bills tossed him aside. DePaul also brought in Roberto Garza, a Pro Bowl alternate in 2011 who will anchor the offensive line this season at center in his 12th season. The line also featured Fred Miller, who had some good football left in him that season, and the club paid big for John Tait to acquire him from the Chiefs, who had placed the transition tag on him.
New general manager Phil Emery has inherited the task of assembling an offensive line, and it's a significant chore that underscores what happens when a line is built through free agency and subsequent drafting of replacement parts doesn't take place and/or doesn't work.
Angelo went five drafts from 2003 through 2007 with the highest-selected offensive lineman being Josh Beekman, an undersized guard selected from Boston College in the fourth round in 2007. That explains part of why the team is at where it is right now. Subsequent selections like Chris Williams, a first-round pick in 2008, haven't met expectations. He has one more opportunity entering the final year of his contract. Gabe Carimi, last year's top pick, returns after missing nearly all of his rookie season with a knee injury that required significant surgery.
So, there is some projecting going on for 2012 from line coach turned offensive coordinator Mike Tice. The club hired Tim Holt, an assistant with the Buccaneers, to work with Tice on the offensive line. We don't know exactly how the unit will stack up just yet but expect a decision to be made early in training camp. That has been Tice's track record the last two summers.
Some remain miffed the team passed on the opportunity to augment the line via the draft. Why not?
According to ESPN, the Bears allowed a sack every 10.5 dropbacks over the last two seasons, easily the worst figure in the NFL. The Cardinals were next closest with one every 12.
But the team — right or wrong — saw a greater need at defensive end and that is why it took Shea McClellin at No. 19 overall and not a tackle like Iowa's Riley Reiff or guard like Stanford's David DeCastro. In the second round, Emery placed a premium on adding a playmaker in wide receiver Alshon Jeffery over a developmental lineman. So, Emery picked up where Angelo left off in ignoring the position via the draft. We'll find out at the end of the season if it was a decision that put the offense further behind in development.
Right now, the Bears would have you believe the switch from old play-caller Mike Martz to Tice will make a difference greater than any single personnel change could. For instance, the tackles will not be put in difficult positions routinely, asked to maintain one-on-one blocks on seven-step drops. Are the tackles going to get help all the time? No, not even close. But Tice, a line coach at heart, isn't going to ask the personnel he knows best to do things he doesn't believe they can accomplish routinely.
What will it look like at the end of the season? If it works out, the Bears will have made an overdue change in the coaching staff. If it doesn't, it will be a lesson in extreme hard-headedness the Halas Hall way.
A peek ahead: Tice hasn't wasted time selecting a starting five in the last two camps, evidence he arrives at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais with a plan in mind.
He rotatedJ'Marcus Webband Chris Williams at left tackle throughout the offseason program, dividing all the reps. The hunch here is Webb will remain the starter but anything is possible.
Tice switched Williams from left tackle to left guard during the 2010 season after he missed three games with a pulled hamstring. He hasn't been back at the position during a game since and a coach typically doesn't make a move like that with a player unless he doesn't plan on returning him to left tackle.
The Bears are not working Williams at left guard, where he started 20 straight games from Week 6 in 2010 until Week 10 last year when he suffered a freak wrist injury. So, the loser of the competition for the left tackle job will inherit the swing tackle position that belonged to Frank Omiyale a year ago.
Right now, the projection for the starting line is: LT Webb, LG Chris Spencer, C Garza, RG Lance Louis, RT Carimi.
Webb, who struggled with consistency last season, was asked to improve in two key areas. Tice wanted him to become more effective and powerful with his hands and he wanted him to clean up his footwork, specifically his second step. Webb had too many penalties last season and when breakdowns happened they came in bunches.
He's at the marquee position on the line and if he cannot get the job done, the team likely will need to find someone else for 2013.
Some suggest Carimi could be an option at left tackle but the Bears drafted him as a right tackle and he has done nothing since being injured in Week 2 as a rookie to now to suggest a move is a possibility. Tice called him the best lineman on the team at the time of the injury and if he can return to that form, the franchise will have a book end for seasons to come, barring injury. There is nothing wrong with him being at right tackle.
A year after proving he could make the transition from the center to right guard, Spencer now is trying the other side. He came over from the Seahawks after the re-signing of Kreutz blew up at Halas Hall and he had a reputation for being a bit of a finesse player.
But Spencer proved to have the kind of toughness and strength that Tice covets so right now he projects to hold off free-agent addition Chilo Rachal, a former second-round pick who has all the physical tools but was known for too many mental errors with the 49ers.
Like Webb, Louis has been a Tice project. He filled in at right tackle most of last season but is viewed as a guard. It's a critical season for him as he's entering the final year of his contract. He has the strength and athleticism you want but it's about mental errors for him, too. If it comes together, maybe the Bears will have a building block here but this is the final year for Louis to prove to the coaches and new front office he's viable for the long haul.
Edwin Williams has 12 career starts and could nail down the job as the backup interior lineman. He received a modest contract extension late last season and can play guard and center. Tice also can sift through some young players in search of developmental prospects. Troy's James Brown probably tops the list.
Glass half-full: Matt Forte and the other backs didn't combine for a 2,000-yard season in 2011 with poor blocking. The ground game, while in need of improvement running right up the middle, was a source of strength.
Quarterback Jay Cutler can tell you things were starting to come around too. In his final five games, he was sacked just five times. The Bears were on pace to allow 37 sacks before the thumb injury knocked the quarterback out. Not a great figure but also not alarming.
Without Cutler, the line was a disaster. Now that he's back healthy and with the change in the passing game, it's fair to expect marked improvement. Pro Bowl berths? No. Competent and efficient blocking? Yes.
Glass half-empty: Webb has been inconsistent and as a former seventh-round selection, there is an awful lot of projecting that has gone on with him. If he can't hold it together it could be the first in a series of miscalculations that comes back to haunt the Bears.
It's very difficult to find healthy starting-caliber linemen in their prime. When you do, you have to overpay grossly like the Bucs did for Carl Nicks, a guard who got $47.5 million over five seasons in their March spending spree. The Bears could learn, once again, that the draft is where they need to turn for help.
Bottom line: Tice will look to keep Cutler upright this season so the scheme is sure to have a positive impact. The players will have to play better along with it for this to be a success.