C Roberto Garza
Garza spent his entire career prior to 2011 playing guard. When the team parted ways with longtime center Olin Kreutz last offseason, Garza transitioned to center. Chicago coaches, players and media praised him for his play in the middle. He was rewarded with a two-year extension mid-season and was named a Pro Bowl alternate. Yet I've said all season that he's not as good as everyone is making him out to be. In my countless hours of film study, Garza did not showcase the top-tier play for which most were giving him credit. He brings experience, leadership and durability to the position, but not much else. Big nose tackles ate him up all season and he didn't show well at the second level. Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded 35 NFL centers who played at least 300 snaps at the center position last year. Garza ranked 34th on that list.
G Chris Williams
LG Chris Williams
Williams started the first nine games of the 2011 season at left guard. He struggled out of the gates but was playing at a high level by midseason, before a wrist injury landed him on injured reserve. Williams finally appeared comfortable with Mike Martz's rushing scheme and showed well on pulls and traps. He struggled at the second level though. As a pass blocker he gave up just one sack. He's not a mauler inside but it appears he finally figured out how to play guard.
RG Chris Spencer
Spencer, a former first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, was signed as a free agent in the offseason. He was brought in ostensibly to replace Kreutz, yet the team didn't give him any snaps at center with the first team. He languished as a $3 million backup to Garza for all of training camp. Then, when Lance Louis went down in Week 1, Spencer was inserted at right guard, where he stayed the remainder of the season. He's not a powerful player but he has outstanding technique. He's not going to move big defenders out of the hole but he knows how to position his body and use leverage to his advantage. As a lead blocker on pulls and traps, Spencer was easily Chicago's best lineman. He showed great awareness at the second level. In pass protection, he was even better, not giving up a single sack all year.
LG Edwin Williams
Edwin Williams was a pleasant surprise in 2011. He sat on the bench until Week 10, when he then was inserted for the injured Chris Williams. He started at left guard for the remainder of the campaign. As a run blocker, he struggled early on but picked up his game in the last few contests. He'll need to work on that area going forward but his improvement as the season wore on is encouraging. Yet Williams' biggest strength is as a pass blocker. Playing 503 snaps, he did not give up a single sack, and only two QB pressures, according to PFF. His awareness in pass protection is off the charts. More than once, he showed the ability to come off a double team and pick up a blitzer. He sinks his hips well and has great balance. His play this year earned him a two-year contract extension.
This group was rather schizophrenic for most of the year. At times, they were dominant. At other times, they were downright awful. Yet every player showed progress, which is a testament to Mike Tice. The Bears rushed for more than 2,000 yards this year for only the second time since 1990. Much of that credit must be given to the interior of the offensive line.
All four of the above interior players are signed at least through next season.
G Chris Spencer
I'm not sold on Garza at center but it appears the Bears will go into 2012 with him in the middle. Edwin Williams deserves a chance to start at left guard. In my opinion, Chicago needs to give Chris Williams another shot at left tackle, the position for which he was drafted in the first round in 2008. J'Marcus Webb was awful on the edge. There is no way Williams could be worse. This would allow Edwin, and his superior pass-protection skills, to start inside.
Spencer is a solid offensive lineman with versatility. There's value in that. But he's not the mauler Chicago needs at guard. Spencer would be best served at center where he could fully utilize his technique and positioning. Unfortunately, that won't happen unless Garza is injured.
If the Bears really want to take the next step, they should consider two outstanding candidates in free agency: Ben Grubbs and Carl Nicks. Both are unrestricted free agent and both are pure maulers inside. Nicks especially would be a huge upgrade. In the NFC Divisional game between the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions, Nicks took DT Ndamukong Suh, considered one of the best interior defensive linemen in the game, behind the proverbially woodshed the entire game. Nicks is one of the most dominant guards in the NFL. Placing him next to RT Gabe Carimi would create arguably the best right side, in terms of run blocking, in the entire league.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.