Can the Bears' offensive line be a strength in 2011?
Yesterday, the NFP’s Matt Bowen and I attended the Bears practice session down in Bourbonnais, Illinois. As you read earlier, Bowen spent much of his time studying the wide receivers while I looked at the offensive line. After last season, many people would say that one of the most important things the Bears needed to do this offseason was upgrade their offensive line. Last week, when they decided not to re-sign Olin Kreutz, many felt they were going in the opposite direction. People must forget the Bears’ first pick in the draft was tackle Gabe Carimi from Wisconsin, who I felt was a steal for the Bears being able to get him that late in the first round. Still, they didn’t sign a veteran O-lineman until 10 days ago when they signed center/guard Chris Spencer, who was a five-year starter in Seattle.
It’s obvious to see that the Bears are going with homegrown talent – players that they have drafted and developed. For the last few years, general manager Jerry Angelo has felt that the Bears needed to do a better job in developing their offensive line draft choices. In order to do that you have to have a line coach who buys into the theory. Mike Tice does, and he is very influential on whom the Bears draft on the O-line.
For instance, last year before the draft, Tice went down to Texas and spent a day with J’Marcus Webb and came back convinced that Webb could be a player in the NFL. It was because of this the Bears drafted Webb in the 7th round in my last draft with the club. Tice also had a big part in drafting Carimi this year. Carimi fits what Tice is looking for in an offensive tackle: size, strength and nastiness. If the Bears are going to develop their own draft choices, they have to play, because the only way you get better is with playing experience. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the core players on this year’s Bears offensive line.
J’Marcus Webb's play improved as the 2010 season progressed.
The first thing I noticed yesterday while at camp was how much bigger Webb is in the upper body as compared to last year. While his weight is about the same at 333 pounds, the muscle mass in his chest and arms is clearly more defined. Webb was a raw talent having played most of his college career at West Texas A&M. But before that he was a 4-star recruit at the University of Texas and got major playing time as a true freshman. When Webb got to the Bears, the natural talent was obvious, but he was technique poor. Because of his talent he was given the starting right tackle spot early in the season. While he struggled in his first few games he showed improvement as the season wore on and by playoff time he had become a very steady player.
Tice felt that Webb was a natural left tackle and moved him over to the left side on the first day of camp. What I saw yesterday was a much more polished player who did a better job keeping his back straight and staying in balance, could cut off wide speed and has an extremely strong punch. At just 23 years of age, Webb should be a fixture at left tackle for some time.
Carimi was a 4-year starter at left tackle while at Wisconsin, but Tice has him starting on the right side now. This is not unusual in the NFL. Carimi has great size and strength and plays with natural bend. Last spring when I broke down Carimi before the draft, I said “there are some tackles in this draft that may have a little better athleticism and may pass block a little better than Carimi but no one has a better combination of run blocking, pass protection and nastiness.” After watching practice yesterday I saw nothing that would change my opinion. Carimi is going to be a very good pro…he just needs playing time to hone his skills.
Williams was drafted to play tackle and has the athleticism to play outside, but he is clearly a better player inside. Last year he had to learn the position on the fly having been moved to guard after the season was underway. Having never played the position as a pro he was a work in progress and did struggle at times. Williams is very strong and athletic but can have a tendency to play too tall and drop his hands. When this happens he gives up his body and can be driven back. Yesterday, I looked to see if his technique had improved and it was clear to see that he was playing with better bend and quicker hands. This technique improvement should make him a solid guard, and at 6-6 and 320 he has more size than many guards in the league.
Roberto Garza will be looked upon to fill the leadership void left by Olin Kreutz's departure.
Garza is the vet of the group and as such has to pick up the leadership role that Kreutz had. While Garza won’t be the leader that Kreutz was he has the traits to have a strong influence on the younger offensive linemen both verbally and by example. Garza has been a reliable vet and has been a starter for years. He has some experience at center when he played for Atlanta and has always taken reps at the position while with the Bears. He is getting more comfortable at the position by the day and gives the Bears more bulk and power at the position.
If there is a player with a question mark in the starting five it’s Lance Louis. Louis started the first four games last year but was inconsistent and replaced. It seemed that the game was still a little too big for him a year ago. While he looked great in practice, he didn’t carry it over to game day. So far this year in camp he has looked very good. Louis was a 7th round pick in the 2009 draft out of San Diego State. He was recruited as a tight end but ended up playing tackle in college. There are few guards that have his athleticism, as he ran a sub-4.8 at his pro day. When drafted he was about 305 and now he is a very lean 320 and has kept his speed and athleticism. He is very good adjusting on the move in space and with Williams, gives the Bears maybe the most athletic set of guards in the league. The big question is when the season starts if will he play like he practices. If he falters, the Bears can move Spencer into the center position and put Garza back at right guard.
While many around the league will question the Bears offensive line because of their play last year, I feel this is an improved group that has both size and athleticism. Players like Webb and Williams have gained valuable experience and with this being their second year in Mike Martz’s system along with Tice, the group should be a much more cohesive unit. Don’t be surprised if the offensive line becomes a strong point on this team. We will find out if I am correct over the next few months.