Assessing the North: Offensive linemen
Starters – LT J'Marcus Webb, LG Edwin Williams, C Roberto Garza, RG Chris Spencer, RT Lance Louis. Backups – OT Gabe Carimi, OL Chris Williams, OL Frank Omiyale.
Two opening-day starters, right tackle Carimi and left guard Chris Williams wound up on injured reserve. Carimi played just two games and Williams nine. Still, the Bears rushed for more than 2,000 yards for just the second time since 1990.
Pass protection was another story. Bears quarterbacks were sacked 49 times, including 26 in the final six games. That total would have been higher were it not for Cutler's ability to get rid of the ball and escape pressure. Coaches believed the Bears had eight capable offensive line starters at the beginning of the season. They don't. What remains to be seen is if they have five solid starters from this group. Carimi is the long-term answer at right tackle. Louis filled in all season, but it was clear he's a better guard. Although Webb started all 16 games, he didn't convince anyone that he is the right guy to be protecting Cutler's blind side. Garza did a commendable job moving to center after 10 years at guard. Edwin Williams and Spencer, a center for most of his first six seasons, were better than expected at guard.
Starters – LT Jeff Backus, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups – RT Corey Hilliard, G-C Dylan Gandy, G Leonard Davis. Injured reserve – LT Jason Fox, G-T Johnny Culbreath.
It has been a long time since a Lions' offensive line stayed intact from Week 1 through Week 18. The blip on the line's perfect attendance was Week 2 when Cherilus was benched.
The first order of business will be at left tackle. Backus' contract is up and it was generally believed that he would come back for at least one more season, but he's battled some injuries this season. The most recent came in the last two weeks when he injured a bicep muscle. The Lions don't have anybody ready to step into the all-important left tackle spot. Fox is believed to be the heir apparent, but his last two seasons have been marred by surgeries. He will be ready to compete this summer.
The rest of the starters will be back, as will reserve guard-center Gandy, but the Lions will have to make a decision on tackle Hilliard. He's been the primary backup the last two seasons and there will be a market for him elsewhere. Davis is also a free agent. He never cracked the active roster this season and it's doubtful he'd return to a backup role.
Green Bay Packers
Starters - LT Chad Clifton, LG T.J. Lang, C Scott Wells, RG Josh Sitton, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups - T Marshall Newhouse, G/C Evan Dietrich-Smith, G Ray Dominguez, T Herb Taylor. Injured reserve: T Derek Sherrod.
A rash of injuries prevented the Packers from having continuity on the line for most of the season. The preferred starting five finally ended the season together for the playoff game after they had been broken up since Week 4. The rock-solid Wells, who is Pro Bowl bound for the first time, is the only starter who manned his position every game. Lang, who beat out 2011 first-round draft pick Sherrod in a camp battle at left guard, had to play some at right tackle late in the season when Bulaga went out with a knee injury. Sitton also was felled by knee problems for a brief stretch in December and didn't perform up to his high standards of 2010. A torn hamstring sustained by Clifton, 35, in Week 5 opened the door for second-year Newhouse to have an extensive stint as Rodgers' blind-side protector. The results were hit-and-miss, but Newhouse may have the inside track to be the opening-day starter next season if Clifton is let go. Sherrod was supposed to be Clifton's heir, but Sherrod might not be ready for the start of camp because of a broken leg he sustained in mid-December. Dietrich-Smith made a total of four starts at both guard spots as an injury replacement late in the season. Dominguez, an undrafted rookie, and Taylor, a late-season pickup off the street, never played.
Starters – LT Charlie Johnson, LG Joe Berger, C John Sullivan, RG Anthony Herrera, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups – T Pat Brown, G/C Brandon Fusco, T/G DeMarcus Love. Injured reserve – LG Steve Hutchinson. T Scott Kooistra.
Hutchinson is the starter at left guard, but a concussion sidelined him for the last two games. He turns 35 and will undoubtedly have to take a pay cut from the $6.95 million that he's due in the final year of his contract. Add that all up and it casts some doubt over whether he'll be back in 2012. Berger is a reliable interior backup, but he's a better center than guard, and he's more of a backup than a 16-game starter at left guard.
Johnson was a last-minute stopgap when Bryant McKinnie was released on Day 2 of training camp. He gives everything he has, but he's built more like a guard and is often overmatched at left tackle. Sullivan is still on the small side but has improved enough that the team signed him to a four-year contract extension during the season. Herrera is a classic overachiever who never forgets that he was undrafted way back in 2004. He's a fiery competitor, but there are legitimate concerns about whether he can stay healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. Loadholt is the best physical specimen, but he's also the most inconsistent player up front, relative to his talent level. He gets at least one more year to live up to his second-round selection from 2009. Brown is a decent backup the team can live with considering its many needs. Fusco, a center at the Division II level, showed as a rookie that he can also play guard.
The gem of these backups might be the guy who basically red-shirted this season. Love was inactive for all 16 games, but coaches are excited about his ability to become a starter at left tackle or left guard. Kooistra was a journeyman who fractured a bone in his neck during a preseason game. He's not expected to return.
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