- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is the fifth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
Attrition over the past two seasons led to discovery at the interior positions up front for the Chicago Bears, with former offensive line coach Mike Tice being forced to shuffle players to compensate for a major departure (Olin Kreutz) and various injuries.
Now the team’s offensive coordinator, Tice says those issues created surprising depth, which is “a good problem to have.”
The current roster features five players -- Chris Williams, Roberto Garza, Lance Louis, Edwin Williams and Chris Spencer -- that started multiple games in 2011. The problem, however, is just three of them will crack the starting lineup in 2012, with the other two falling back to reserve roles.
Interestingly, all five can play multiple positions with Chris Spencer and Edwin Williams being capable of backing up Garza at center. Chris Williams and Louis, meanwhile, have started games outside at tackle. After spending most of his career at guard, Garza -- a 12th-year veteran -- is coming off his first season as Chicago’s starting center, where he replaced Kreutz, a franchise icon.
Garza continued to improve as the year progressed. With a full offseason to work with quarterback Jay Cutler, the team expects continued growth between the quarterback and center, who work together to identify threats on the defense before making adjustments in the protection.
As for the running game, the Bears are coming off a season in which they eclipsed the 2,000-yard rushing mark for just the second time in 20 years. On 177 runs behind the interior of the line in 2011, the Bears averaged 4 yards per attempt.
“For our offense to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, that’s saying a lot the way we were able to run the football,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “If you’re going to get off the bus running the football, you’ve got to be able to do it then.”
The interior of Chicago’s offensive line will play a major factor in determining whether the team’s good fortunes with the rushing attack continue under a new ground-oriented attack led by Tice.
THE CURRENT ROSTER
• Roberto Garza: Took over as the starting center when the team couldn’t work out a deal to bring back Kreutz, with no drop off in terms of production. In fact, Garza provided somewhat of an upgrade because he possesses Kreutz’s intelligence, but is stouter at the point of attack. The Bears rewarded Garza for a strong season with a two-year extension worth $6.55 million, including $2.6 million guaranteed. Garza came into training camp expecting to start at guard, and handled the move to center with very few complications. So a full offseason working at center should only lead to more improvement.
• Chris Spencer: Brought in during training camp as a potential starter at center, and ended up playing extensively at right guard in the season opener for an injured Louis. Spencer eventually started 14 games for the Bears at right guard. Initially, Tice was apprehensive about Spencer’s prospects because of his reputation for being somewhat soft. But Spencer quickly changed Tice’s impressions with a hard-nosed style and impressive athleticism. Spencer could easily emerge in the offseason as one of the top contenders for one of the starting guard spots.
• Chris Williams: One of the most physically gifted linemen on the team, Williams started the first nine games at left guard. But a fractured and dislocated wrist he suffered against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 13 landed Williams on the injured reserve. Williams excelled at blocking in space, and was by far the club’s best at pulling as the lead blocker for Matt Forte. A former first-round pick and starter at both tackle spots, Williams enters the final year of his original rookie contract. He needs to prove he’s worthy of a long-term commitment from the team.
• Lance Louis: Started off the season as the starting right guard, but an ankle sprained knocked him out of the majority of the first four games. Louis returned on Oct. 10 to start against the Detroit Lions, but eventually moved over to right tackle, replacing an ineffective Frank Omiyale, who at the time was filling in for injured rookie Gabe Carimi. Given the circumstances, Louis performed reasonably well at right tackle. But he’s eager to get back to his more natural guard position. Like Chris Williams, Louis is entering the final year of his contract.
• Edwin Williams: The Bears quietly signed Williams to a two-year extension near the end of last December, which serves as an indication of his worth to the team. Williams started the last seven games of 2011 at left guard, as the replacement to Chris Williams. Although Edwin Williams isn’t as athletic as Chris Williams, he’s more powerful and a better pass-protector, according to the staff. Also capable of playing center, Edwin Williams might wind up a backup in 2012 because of the high number of capable players at the interior positions.
• Ricky Henry: Signed to the active roster on Nov. 17, Henry played in two games, making his debut on Dec. 18 against the Seattle Seahawks. The club acquired Henry as an undrafted free agent for training camp. Although he’s talented, Henry will likely end up a victim of the numbers game at training camp.
• Reggie Stephens: Spent most of 2011 on the practice squad, after signing with the team on Nov. 8.
Bears free agents: None
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
WHY BEARS MIGHT STAND PAT
The team isn’t likely to make moves to upgrade the interior of the offensive line through free agency. But there’s a good chance the Bears add to the roster through the draft through late-round picks or undrafted rookies. It’s important to note that Tice has a track record for uncovering gems along the offensive line; especially undrafted free agents
Wright continues his offseason outlook by spotlighting guards and centers.