Getting back to our position-by-position breakdowns as we move closer to the first practice of the summer at Olivet Nazarene University, we move to the offensive line.
Projected starters: LT Orlando Pace, 6-7, 325, 13th season, Ohio State; LG Frank Omiyale, 6-4, 315, 5th season, Tennessee Tech; C Olin Kreutz, 6-2, 292, 12th season, Washington; RG Roberto Garza, 6-2, 310, 9th season, Texas A&M-Kingsville; RT Chris Williams, 6-6, 315, 2nd season, Vanderbilt.
Johan Asiata, 6-4, 300, Rookie, UNLV
Cody Balogh, 6-6, 303, 1st season, Montana
Josh Beekman, 6-2, 310, 3rd season, Boston College
Dan Buenning, 6-4, 300, 5th season, Wisconsin
Dennis Conley, 6-2, 300, Rookie, Hampton
Lance Louis, 6-3, 305, Rookie, San Diego State
Tyler Reed, 6-5, 305, 1st season, Penn State
Kevin Shaffer, 6-5, 318, 8th season, Tulsa
Projected depth chart
LT: Pace, Shaffer
LG: Omiyale, Beekman
C: Kreutz, Beekman or Buenning
RG: Garza, Beekman
RT: Williams, Shaffer
2009 salary cap numbers
Johan Asiata $311,666
Cody Balogh $315,200
Josh Beekman $563,325
Dan Buenning $905,200
Dennis Conley $311,000
Roberto Garza $1,565,000
Olin Kreutz $4,133,333
Lance Louis $320,495
Frank Omiyale $4,950,000
Orlando Pace $5,333,333
Tyler Reed $317,280
Kevin Shaffer $2,383,333
Chris Williams $2,149,700
Number of offensive linemen on the roster at the start of the 2008 season: 9
Projected number of offensive linemen on 2009 roster at start of the season: 8
The skinny: The Bears are reshaping their offensive line for the second consecutive year after using the same five (Tait-Brown-Kreutz-Garza-Miller) for the three previous seasons. They're set to open with their third left tackle, Pace, and third right tackle, Williams, in as many seasons. Nothing is official but Omiyale, the newcomer in free agency, is expected to supplant Beekman at left guard giving the front a new look at 60 percent of the positions. Line coach Harry Hiestand has done a credible job with what he's been given, which for most of his tenure has been a veteran group with a handful of castoffs from other cities. Hiestand didn't break stride last season when Williams was lost on the second day of training camp, forcing him to play John St. Clair at left tackle when the plan was for the veteran to be at left guard. Now, general manager Jerry Angelo is hopeful that his medical risk will pan out in a big way.
Ultimately, right tackle is not where the club projects Williams, the first-round draft pick from 2008, to be. But the hope is the team can squeeze a couple of Ruben Brown-type years out of Pace. He missed 25 games over the last three seasons in St. Louis, but Pace started 14 games last season. One NFC scout said he still looks solid as a pass blocker and the issue for the former No. 1 overall pick is run blocking. Pace was in good condition during the offseason program and it could be that a change of scenery and escaping a struggling franchise will reinvigorate him. The Bears have covered themselves in the event that injuries happen as they have Shaffer in a swing tackle role, not to mention Omiyale, who can play outside. That type of flexibility on the line will be an asset and there is little doubt right now the team will go with eight linemen to open the season. That was the plan last year until Williams had back surgery in August. In choosing to keep him on the 53-man roster, the Bears forced themselves to keep a ninth lineman. Omiyale should provide a little more bulk inside in replacing Beekman, and that was one of the stated goals early in the offseason. Kreutz remains the anchor of the group and with the Bears certain to face fewer eight-man fronts with Jay Cutler at quarterback, it will be interesting to see if the perception of him changes. Some have suggested the six-time Pro Bowl performer has been in decline but with Cutler and Matt Forte able to better keep opponents honest, the Bears' run blocking might look different.
Garza will enter his fourth season as the starter at right guard. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner suggested Buenning could be in competition for a job, but also said the team was happy with Garza. Buenning's chance never seemed to materialize during the offseason program, a sign of Garza's standing.
The upside: For starters, Williams has to prove he can withstand the rigors of an entire season with a repaired back. He's not just part of the solution for this season, he's part of the solution longterm. A strong first season as a starter will go a long way toward establishing him as a pillar on offense for years to come. Obviously, Pace needs to hold up on the left side and the Bears need Omiyale to blossom like they expect after pouncing on him at the outset of free agency. Winning teams often stack the Pro Bowl roster along the line. If the Bears win, it won't be surprising to see a name on the NFC team.
The downside: Williams' back becomes an issue once again and the criticism Angelo received last season for the situation looks like a small brush fire compared to what erupts. After holding on to some older players--Brown and Miller-- a year too long in recent seasons, the Bears get stuck with another over-the-hill performer in Pace.
On the hot seat: Williams. With a year of learning under his belt and a little action last season, he should be prepared to have a successful season but the back injury is going to leave a bullseye--where else--on his back, at least for the near future. He can't be the left tackle of the future until he's been the right tackle for 2009.
Final thought: When the Bears were last good in 2006, the line was a real strength of the team. Hiestand got about everything he could out of the unit last season but the Bears struggled at times in short-yardage situations. You can't hang all of that on the line. Kyle Orton didn't command the kind of respect that Cutler will and Forte tends to be an upright runner, making him easier to stop when going for that tough one or two yards. The unit remains a work in progress. The Bears know they're not going to get more than one, two years tops out of Pace. They need to find a young tackle to hopefully pair with Williams and managed to buy themselves some time with the signing of the potential future Hall of Famer. The real plus for the group is that there should be experienced backups in place. Beekman and Buenning have plenty of starting experience, as does Shaffer, so the unit should be able to handle any injury situations. Even if this won't be the look of the Bears' front line for long, it has a chance to be good for a year.