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Sunday, March 31, 2013

2012 Bears Position Reviews: The Offensive Line

How hard is it to fix an offensive line? I ask this not in a sarcastic way, like "Jesus, how dumb are you people to not have fixed this yet?" but legitimately. The Bears problems on the offensive line go back many years, ever since the 2001 Bears were one of the league's best, and yet oldest, groups. Angelo, in his first go round at running a draft, took Marc Colombo in the first round in order to provide youthful talent to the unit. Colombo, to Angelo's credit, was a solid left tackle for several years...for the Cowboys, after he lost nearly all three years of his rookie contract with the Bears to a devastating knee injury.

The Colombo experience seemed to sour Angelo on investing premium draft picks on offensive linemen, and from 2003-2010 he drafted just one offensive lineman, Chris Williams, above the fourth round (in that time he spent one fourth round pick on Josh Beekman, and spent six seventh round and one sixth round pick on various projects, with only two middling "successes" in Lance Louis and J'Marcus Webb) before public fury forced his hand on picking Gabe Carimi.

With such a low investment of draft resources on the unit, Angelo had to find his answers in free agency. In a lot of ways, his rise and fall as a general manager had more to do with his declining success at signing free agent offensive linemen than his much-maligned misses on high draft picks. After Angelo completely overhauled the line in 2004-2005 with the additions of John Tait, Ruben Brown, Fred Miller, and Roberto Garza (and you can say what you want about Angelo or about Brown, Miller, and Garza's performance in their later years, these were great pickups), the Bears had a very effective run and pass-blocking unit that played a major part in the team's 2006 title run by clearing the way for Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. 

Unfortunately, if you are forced to rely on highly-paid free agent offensive linemen and you don't invest in providing depth behind them with valuable draft picks, you're in for a bad time once those veterans age out of effectiveness. In 2007 Miller and Brown utterly collapsed, and Olin Kreutz began his slow decline as well. Tait retired after 2008, leaving the Bears with a gap at left tackle they've spent four years struggling to fill.

As we know, Jerry whiffed with Chris Williams and later Gabe Carimi, leaving the success of the line again dependent on low-round projects and free agents. Jerry failed to duplicate his earlier success in this department, throwing away millions on has-beens like Orlando Paces and oh-no-fucking-way-will-he-ever-bes like Frank Omiyale. The result was a line that's ranked 31st, 32nd, and 30th overall in the last three years according to Pro Football Focus. Some will give Angelo credit for "getting good value" in finding seventh rounders like Louis and Webb who developed into passable starters, but this team suffered greatly as those two took their lumps, and the other three spots around them still sucked this year. Not to mention the fact that Webb didn't show enough even in his best year to stave off getting replaced on the blind side and Louis left in free agency.

So what does it take to fix this mess? Money, in the form of contracts handed out to Bushrod and Slauson, who are both on the right side of thirty and have plenty of proven experience, which wasn't the case for the worn-out Pace or the unproven Omiyale. It's also going to take a willingness to continually invest at least second day draft picks in the position on a continual basis, whether the team feels confident in their current batch of guys or not. Experience has shown that injury, inconsistency, and age will strike at any time. I still think they'd be best served, even with Bushrod and Slauson on board, to take an interior lineman in round one.

Now that I've spent six paragraphs without reviewing a single player, I'm going to try and keep this short and sweet:


#73 J'Marcus Webb: 16 games, 16 games started, 7 sacks allowed. 

I really don't mean to sell J'Marcus short. He made huge strides last season, and he's still young and talented enough to be a good tackle. I'm glad that Phil Emery understands that potential can only buy you so much time, and that the team is still better served throwing a proven, reliable left tackle on Jay's blindside and letting Webb have the chance to take his talent and his developing skills as a run blocker over to the right side, where his still-too-frequent mental lapses in pass protection will hopefully be less devastating. If not? Too bad. I doubt anyone will shed a tear and say the Bears didn't do everything they could for J'Marcus.

#72 Gabe Carimi: 16 games, 14 games started, 6.5 sacks allowed.

To be clear, Gabe doesn't necessarily have to be the next Chris Williams. He's an absolutely elite run-blocker, ranking 9th among all offensive tackles in the NFL according to PFF. There's reason to believe he can still be a productive player inside at guard (where his +4.2 rating in four games would have made him a top 15 guard in the NFL if he managed to do it for a full season), or even at tackle if he can find a way to be something less than a complete waste of space in pass-blocking. There are those who believe his recovery from the knee injury wasn't complete, and that the resulting lack of speed and agility crippled him in pass-blocking. I hope they're right. It would be a terrible waste if he can't become a valuable contributor somewhere, but I also hope the Bears aren't banking on him starting. As of right now I'm not really sold on a competition between Carimi and James Brown at guard being a good thing. The team needs to add one more guard in the draft so the team isn't forced to rely on either of those two panning out as a quality starter.

#79 Jon Scott: 12 games, 7 games started, 1 sack allowed.

Scott is about the very definition of a swing tackle. He can play left or right tackle and he won't get utterly embarrassed in pass protection. He'll give up hurries and hits but not necessarily sacks. He also gets zero push in the run game. He was an adequate band-aid last year, and I'm not upset that the Bears re-signed him, so long as they don't start him for any reason other than injury. 

#74 Chris Williams: 3 games, 0 games started, 1 sack allowed.

He was bad, and it's over. I've wasted too many lines on him already. Sigh.


#60 Lance Louis: 11 games, 11 games started, 2.5 sacks allowed.

Lance Louis is a very good pass-protecting guard. He's also a very bad run-blocking guard. On the Bears offense, you'll take the good pass-blocking every time. If Lance had never gotten hurt, I think he'd have gotten himself an extension and would still be a Bear. With the injury, however, he was never going to get what he wanted from the team. In the end Phil managed to grab a player of similar age with more experience, who is an even better pass blocker, and is a slightly less-bad run-blocker to replace Lance, one who isn't coming off a knee injury (and doesn't have a history of missing games with injury every year of his career, as Lance has). I kind of love you, Phil Emery. I wish Lance well in Miami, though.

#67 Chris Spencer: 10 games, 5 games started, 1.5 sacks allowed.

After a very good 2011 that led both the Bears and myself to think he was somehow just a guy who found his untapped potential after six season, Spencer regressed last year and lost his job early, and never really re-claimed it despite numerous opportunities. While he allowed just one sack, he allowed frequent hits, hurries, and disruptions, and his shoddy run-blocking performance was more in line with the rest of his career than his 2011 anomaly. No one will shed tears over his departure.

#62 Chilo Rachal: 9 games, 8 games started, 2.0 sacks allowed.

I was pretty enthused about the Chilo Rachal signing. He was always a dominant run-blocker in San Francisco, grading out as the top run-blocking guard in all of football in 2010 according to PFF, and his mental lapses in pass protection were often overrated by 49ers fans. In Chicago, however, he was an unmitigated disaster. He was actually worse as a run-blocker than Spencer, his mental-lapses in pass protection became complete systemic collapses, and he committed seven goddamn penalties in just eight starts, and Mike Tice fucking complemented him on his personal foul because he gave the team "an edge." Just not, like, an edge in competition against the opposing defense. He quit in a bitch fit after the 49ers game and will probably never take a snap in the NFL again.

#78 James Brown: 5 games, 3 games started, 3.0 sacks allowed.

*Don't Make James Brown Joke* *Don't Make James Brown Joke*...James Brown may have soul, but as a guard in 2012, he was super bad. Goddammit. Actually, after a horrible debut, Brown was somewhat less than awful in his last two starts, but there's nothing to give any evidence that he's got true potential. Again, I hope Emery has a plan to draft one more guard, because a James Brown/Carimi competition at guard could just be two wrongs failing to make a right.

#70 Edwin Williams: 6 games, 2 games started, 0.0 sacks allowed.

Edwin Williams has allowed just 1 sack in 14 career starts at guard. The reason he hasn't started every single game possible for the Bears is because he doesn't do much else besides provide adequate pass protection. He's not a dominant pass-blocker, as he allows plenty of pressure whether it gets home or not, and he's never been much of anything in the run game. This is why many people think his future is inside at center, where he played in college, and I'd certainly like to see him get a shot, since his lack of power and his smaller frame would be more suited in that role. Also because Roberto Garza is shitty.

#63 Roberto Garza: 16 games, 16 games started, 5.0 sacks allowed.

No offense, Roberto. You seem like a nice guy, and for a long stretch there you were a very, very good guard. That stretch ended in 2008. Since then you were a mediocre guard for two years, and a mediocre center for a year after that. Jerry Angelo gave you a f*&king contract extension for this. Now you're just plain bad. Garza allowed five sacks, a fairly high total for a center, and was still somehow a better pass blocker than a run blocker, mostly because he was utterly useless in that department. He can still get out there on pulls and screens, but he's otherwise beaten up and tossed in the trash by any half-decent nose guard. He also committed four false starts this year. My God. Roberto Garza is Olin Kreutz. We just can't get rid of that sonofabitch.

That's all for now. After 44 sacks allowed last year, and 149 allowed since 2010, the Bears have finally made it a real priority to upgrade this dumpster fire of a unit. Marc Trestman's scheme will certainly help, but we've heard that story before. The important thing is that Emery has shown a willingness to spend money on protecting his quarterback, and I hope he's willing to invest draft picks on it as well. We can only hope Bushrod, Slauson, and the hopeful rookie-to-be-named-later can lead to the first truly productive offensive line the Bears have had since Superbowl 41.


Erik said...

I like to think, on the day of his retirement, that Roberto Garza is going to pull off a mask and reveal that he was Olin Kreutz the whole time.

Lee said...

Supporting an offensive line is easier than fixing one. Just as a script can be improved by actors, directors, editors, etc., an offensive line can be aided by backs and receivers. But when you have players with the talents of Rob LaZebnik and Cedric Kyles, you're fucked.