In his first season as general manager of the Chicago Bears, GM Phil Emery chose not to address the team's needs along the offensive line. He did not draft a lineman and signed just Chilo Rachal in free agency – a player who left the team midseason after being taken out of the starting lineup.
Emery believed the return of Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams would be the boost the front five needed. Instead, both players dramatically underperformed. Williams failed to earn the starting left tackle gig in training camp and sulked about it for two months. The team ended up cutting the former first round pick in midseason.
Carimi, the team's first round selection from 2011, also didn't live up to expectations and was benched late in the campaign. To make matters worse, injuries, as well as Rachal's departure, depleted the team of healthy bodies up front, resulting in seven different starting offensive line combinations.
In 2012, the Bears finished 25th in the league is sacks allowed (44), although that number would have been far worse if it weren't for quarterback Jay Cutler's elusiveness in the pocket. The inconsistency in protection resulted in a passing attack that ranked 29th in the NFL.
The group's run blocking was decent, with Chicago finishing 10th overall in rushing (123.1 yards per game), yet they were inconsistent in this area as well. The team's 4.2 yards per carry was 14th in the league.
Let's look back at the individual performances of each Bears offensive lineman from last season and decipher where the priorities are in terms of upgrades.
**Editor's Note: Because offensive linemen do not generate quantifiable statistics, we will use the grading system of Pro Football Focus (PFF) in this article to help us evaluate Chicago's blockers.**
C Roberto Garza
For the second season in a row, Garza struggled at center. A career guard who transitioned to center after the departure of Olin Kreutz last year, Garza just doesn't have the agility and strength to man the middle. PFF graded him at -5.6 on the season, which is 30th in the NFL at his position. His run block grade was -8.2, 33rd in the league amongst centers, and his five sacks allowed were second most at the position.
Garza is a strong leader of the offensive line and makes all the calls at the line of scrimmage. Yet he turns 34 in March, so there's really no hope he's going to suddenly flip the switch. Leadership aside, Garza hasn't lived up to expectations.
That said, I expect the Bears to hang onto him next season, his final year under contract. The smart move would be to draft a young center who can learn under Garza and take over for the old man following 2013. Garza is a 12-year veteran with tons of knowledge to impart. Let him guide and teach his replacement during his swan song season.
G Lance Louis
According to PFF, Louis was Chicago's second best offensive lineman last season. He graded at 5.7 as a pass blocker, which was far better than any other blocker on the team. Yet only Garza had a worse run block grade than Louis' -8.0.
The big issue with Louis is the torn ACL he suffered in Week 14, which ended his season. Recovery times range from 8-12 months for typical ACL tears, which means he could miss a significant portion of the 2013 season.
This is bad news for Louis, who is about to become a free agent for the first time in his career. His play last season, while sketchy at times, was going to earn him a nice, fat contract. The injury wiped all that out. Now he's damaged goods, meaning he's unlikely to get much more than a one- or two-year deal with incentives.
The Bears would be wise to take a risk on Louis, whose athleticism – he was a tight end in college – would likely fit very well in new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer's zone blocking system. An incentive-laden contract takes some of the risk out of signing an offensive lineman coming off major reconstructive knee surgery and would allow Louis to make decent money once he fully heals.
According to former offensive coordinator Mike Tice, Spencer, playing right guard, graded the highest of any Bears offensive lineman in 2011. Yet Tice chose to shift Spencer to left guard in 2012, to make room for Louis on the right side. For Spencer, that shift did not go well. He was so bad that Tice benched him by Week 3.
Spencer sat on the bench for the next few months, playing sparingly in Weeks 12 and 15 due to injury. Yet after Rachal's departure and Louis' injury, Tice had no other choice but to put Spencer back at right guard to finish the year. Not surprisingly, he again played very well as the starter those final two contests.
Spencer is set to become a free agent and, considering his tumultuous 2011, it's unlikely he'll return to Chicago. His natural position is center, the position for which he was drafted in the first round in 2005. Don't be surprised if he looks for an opportunity to play center elsewhere.
G Edwin Williams
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports
In 2011, Williams started seven games at left guard. He played well enough to earn a two-year contract extension. Yet coming into 2012, he was an afterthought. He served as the club's backup center and was inactive through the first 11 weeks of the season.
Williams finally saw the field after the injuries piled up. He played in four of the team's final five contests, starting two games at left guard. He graded high in pass protection, which is his strength, yet he was awful as a run blocker.
Williams just didn't have the agility to pull, trap and work his way to the second level in Tice's system. That won't go over well under Kromer either, as he'll be looking for lineman who can move and pick off defenders on the go. Williams has one more year on his contract, so he'll likely return to training camp but I'll be very surprised if he ends up on the 53-man roster in 2013.
Brown was projected as a fourth-round prospect in last year's draft, yet he went undrafted because NFL teams saw him as too much of a "tweener": too short (6-3) for tackle and too light (306) for guard. The Bears immediately scooped him up and stashed him on the practice squad. He was elevated to the active roster in Week 12, after Louis' injury.
Brown saw significant playing time the last month of the campaign and started at left guard for the team's final three games. He went through some significant growing pains and was absolutely manhandled by the Packers' front seven in Week 15. Yet Brown progressed and graded well in the final two contests.
Brown has good feet and quick hands. His athleticism should make him a great fit for Kromer's scheme. Brown jumped from UDFA to starter in his first season. If he continues to develop, he could turn into a quality backup, and potential full-time starter, going forward.
T Gabe Carimi
After dislocating his knee in Week 2, Carimi missed nearly all of his rookie season in 2011. He came into training camp last year lighter and supposedly healthy. Yet the knee bothered him throughout the preseason, which carried over to the real games.
As a pass blocker, Carimi spiraled out of control in 2012. On the year, he gave up seven sacks, five hits and 30 QB hurries – all of which were the most on the team. Speed rushers blew past him and bull rushers just ran him over. According to PFF, of all the offensive tackles in the NFL last season, only two were worse than Carimi in pass protection. And on his own team, only Rachal graded worse than Carimi.
Carimi started the first 11 games at right tackle but was benched in Week 12. Injuries forced him to play right guard, where he'd never before played in his career. Injuries then slid him back outside for one more start at RT in Week 16 before again being benched in the final contest.
With his extremely poor performance in 2012, Carimi is approaching "first-round bust" territory. For most of the year, he looked like a turnstile trying to protect the quarterback. He was outstanding in the run game – PFF graded him the highest run blocker on the tam last year – yet his inability to keep the quarterback clean is too much to overlook.
The hope is that a full offseason to strengthen the knee, and possibly add back some weight, could help him return to the dominant player he was in college. Next year will be big for Carimi in terms of his future with the Bears organization.
T J'Marcus Webb
T J'Marcus Webb
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports
Everyone has been bashing Webb for three years now. At times, he has been downright pathetic as a run blocker protecting the blindside. He's been so bad that Webb has become a running joke in Chicago.
Which is exactly why nobody has noticed Webb's development as an offensive tackle. Despite two horrible performances in 2012 – Week 2 against the Packers and Week 11 against the 49ers – Webb graded out the highest (-0.8) of any offensive lineman on the team last year.
I'll give you a second to let that sink in…
Overall, Webb had a positive grade in both pass protection and run blocking. In fact, if it weren't for his numerous false start penalties, PFF would have graded Webb in the positive last year, after grading him -16.2 and -29.1 in 2011 and 2010 respectively.
The kid is improving. There's no denying that at this point. In fact, he's approaching a level of serviceability no one in Chicago, outside of Tice, ever thought he'd reach. Serviceable offensive tackles are what the N.Y. Giants and Green Bay Packers had the last two seasons when they won Super Bowls.
At this point, Webb is the most solid player up front. When Emery starts the process to improve the offensive line this offseason, left tackle should be the least of his worries. Webb is only 24 and is getting better. Now is not the time to give up on him.
Scott was signed in Week 4 and sat on the bench until Week 11, at which time he took over for Carimi at right tackle. Scott started six of the final seven games on the right edge. He was an improvement over Carimi for sure, but that's not saying much. Everyone was high on Scott only because Carimi had been so horrible before him.
PFF graded Scott's overall performance -8.1, third worst on the team amongst offensive linemen. His -7.3 pass block grade was also third worst. Scott is a seven-year veteran who served as a fill in last season, but he's by no means a long-term option. He's played for four teams during seven years in the NFL, starting just 35 games during that span. He's nothing more than a journeyman.
He was signed to a one-year deal, so it remains to be seen whether Kromer is interested in bringing Scott back on. Most likely, the Bears will look to upgrade the swing tackle position and part ways with Scott.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.