NFC North Tour: OL Breakdown

In the fifth part of our NFC North personnel previews, we examine the division's offensive linemen. As usual, we lead off in Green Bay, where the left side is a source of concern with young T.J. Lang and veteran Chad Clifton.

Green Bay Packers

Starters — LT Chad Clifton, LG T.J. Lang, C Scott Wells, RG Josh Sitton, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups — LT Derek Sherrod, T Marshall Newhouse, C/G Evan Dietrich-Smith.

Only one starting spot was up for grabs after five-year left guard Daryn Colledge defected for the Arizona Cardinals in free agency. Thompson and McCarthy gambled that Sherrod, the last first-round pick of this year's draft, could make the adjustment playing inside for the first time in his competitive playing career. The experiment lasted only three weeks and two games into camp, however, as Sherrod struggled as a pass blocker and also regressed some as an acclaimed run blocker coming out of Mississippi State. Lang, a third-year player with only three pro starts to his credit (all at tackle), didn't overly impress in the battle with Sherrod but won the job fair and square. He had a solid debut against the Saints, despite two false starts. While Sitton and the vastly improved Bulaga are an imposing duo on the right side for a second season and Wells is as solid and savvy as ever in his seventh year as the starter in the middle, 35-year-old Clifton is a source of concern because of his chronically bad knees. He started every game last season for the first time in three years, but he didn't look right in giving up two sacks to Indianapolis Colts All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney in the Aug. 26 preseason game. He did, however, play well against the Saints. If Clifton can't hold up to protect Rodgers' blind side, the dropoff could be significant with an unpolished Sherrod and second-year Newhouse as the backups. It was a crapshoot as to whom Thompson will keep for possibly two reserve roles among the interior candidates.

Chicago Bears

Starters — LT J'Marcus Webb, LG Chris Williams, C Roberto Garza, RG Lance Louis, RT Gabe Carimi. Backups — T/G Frank Omiyale, G/C Edwin Williams, C Chris Spencer.

After 12 years ties were cut with six-time Pro Bowl C Olin Kreutz, and long-time RG Roberto Garza was moved into the middle where his leadership and smarts are considered more valuable to the Bears than his inexperience at the position. Both tackles are youngsters playing new positions. LT Webb earned a starting position at RT last season as a seventh-round rookie, but he was a left tackle at West Texas A&M. Carimi was a four-year starter at left tackle for the Wisconsin Badgers, but his style of play is better suited to the right side where the Bears can take advantage of his strong run blocking. Williams couldn't hold starting spots at either tackle position, but he's shown some signs of adapting to his new LG position. Garza's move to the pivot created an opening for the athletic Louis, who brings a brawler's mentality to the unit. Omiyale has played both tackle spots and some guard, so he is the ideal swing tackle/utility man. Williams can play any of the three interior positions while Spencer seemed a likely starter when he was signed but is being given time to learn the offense.

Detroit Lions

Starters — LT Jeff Backus, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups — LT Corey Hilliard, LG Dylan Gandy, LT Jason Fox, T Johnny Culbreath.

When healthy, this is a cohesive and veteran group. Initial health concerns were alleviated when Backus (pectoral) and Cherilus (offseason microfracture surgery) made it back strong by the end of camp. Pass protection is the forte of this unit. Even though all three quarterbacks were injured last year, the Lions were sixth in fewest sacks allowed. Run blocking, however, remains a concern. In particular, the Lions seem worried about Peterman's play. He was hampered by a foot problem all of last season and he hasn't seemed to full regain his form. The Lions entertained the idea of signing veteran Leonard Davis, but refrained. They are also working Hilliard some at right guard.

Minnesota Vikings

Starters — LT Charlie Johnson, LG Steve Hutchinson, C John Sullivan, RG Anthony Herrera, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups — T DeMarcus Love, G Seth Olsen, C Jon Cooper, Patrick Brown, C Brandon Fusco.

The biggest x-factor here is Johnson, who was signed as a free agent after the lockout and then quickly replaced Bryant McKinnie after he showed up to training camp weighing nearly 400 pounds. Johnson spent the past two seasons with the Colts protecting Peyton Manning's blindside but Indianapolis was going to move Johnson to guard and the fact of the matter is Manning gets rid of the ball far quicker than McNabb. Johnson's play was shaky at the outset but did seem to improve as the preseason progressed. Hutchinson will turn 34 on Nov. 1 and while still a very effective player is no longer the dominant guard he once was. Herrera is coming off ACL surgery and the Vikings are hoping he will be ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener. Sullivan was bothered by calf injuries last season but is back to 100 percent and should be improved. Loadholt, meanwhile, needs to cut down on mental mistakes but he did come to camp in excellent shape and should rebound from an up-and-down second season.


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