22 Starters in 22 Days: Center

Leading up to training camp, JC will preview all 22 starters for the Chicago Bears on both sides of the ball – strengths, weaknesses and whatever lies in between. Today, we look at center.

Projected starter: Olin Kreutz
Starting every single game for the franchise since the 2003 campaign, Kreutz is the longest-tenured Bear – along with long snapper Patrick Mannelly – and has been a team captain as far back as anyone in Chicago can remember. A Pro Bowl selection from 2001-06, including an All-Pro honoree in 2006, Kreutz was recently named to ESPN.com's all-decade team and has a reasonable chance of ending up in the Hall of Fame one day. However, the former third-round choice has been nothing more than average the last three seasons, although he's hoping to revert back to form following offseason surgery on his Achilles.

Projected backup: Josh Beekman
The Bears were very high on Beekman after taking him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, as he played both center and guard during his career at Boston College – sometimes in the same game. He sat behind future Canton enshrinee Ruben Brown as a rookie before getting the starting nod at left guard in 2008, and while he may not have been the strength of the offensive line, he certainly wasn't the weakness. Still, the coaching staff apparently wasn't happy with Beekman's performance and made him a backup again in 2009, so even though he's technically in the mix to start again after Frank Omiyale moved over to right tackle, the more likely scenario is Beekman taking the reigns from Kreutz when No. 57's contract expires after this season.

2009 Review
The Bears certainly didn't "get off the bus running the football" this past season, as coach Lovie Smith continues to repeat to this day, ranking 29th in the league at 93.2 rushing yards per contest. The ground assault was particularly ineffective in the red zone, as evidenced by the sad fact that Chicago was credited with just six rushing touchdowns all year long, which tied for 29th with the Bills and only outpaced the lowly Buccaneers and Rams. Kreutz can't be held solely responsible for the failures of the offensive line, but since he's the one making all the calls up front, he deserves his fair share of the blame.

2010 Preview
As mentioned previously, Kreutz had surgery in the offseason to repair his Achilles and subsequently missed the majority of the offseason program. But even though he wasn't scheduled to participate in team drills until training camp at the end of this month, he did take part in the final week of OTAs at Halas Hall. It would take some of the burden off Kreutz's shoulders if the Bears could find themselves an adequate left guard next to him, as Omiyale failed there a year ago and now it's a three-horse race between Beekman and a pair of inexperienced second-year players: Lance Louis and Johan Asiata.

C Olin Kreutz
Charlie Neiberball/AP

I'd much rather have ...
... Andre Gurode in Dallas. While Kreutz hasn't gone to a Pro Bowl past the age of 29, Gurode has been to the last four Pro Bowls, including last season at age 31. Kreutz does have more mileage on him, and Gurode didn't become the Cowboys' full-time starter at center until 2006, but Kreutz appears to be declining in ability, while Gurode only seems to be getting better in Big D.

But he's better than ...
Dominic Raiola in Detroit. Some Lions fans want to say Raiola is finally the top center in the NFC North now that Kreutz is no longer a Pro Bowler, but the truth of the matter is that Raiola isn't getting any better either. A Hawaii native, just like Kreutz, while Raiola has good instincts and nobody questions his toughness in the trenches, his limited size prohibits his ability to be a truly great center in this league. He's not generating any more push off the line on running plays than Kreutz.

Confidence-o-Meter: 6.1 *
There has been zero talk within the organization about extending Kreutz's contract past this season, which means 2010 is most likely his last in a Bears uniform – and it probably should be at 33 years old with a history of diminishing returns. It's possible the constant Achilles problems have held him back recently, so there is reason to be optimistic now that he looks to be healthy, but expecting Kreutz to be a Pro Bowler again is fool's gold. Although his leadership in the locker room can never be replaced, he is no longer an indispensible asset on the field.

* Much like Ron Swanson from "Parks and Recreation" came up with a scientifically perfect 10-point scale for human beauty, JC has done the same with confidence in centers. 10.0 is Mike Webster when Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls in six years.

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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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