Countdown to Camp: High hopes for Tice to improve offensive line

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This is Part 5 of the 10-part position analysis leading up to the start of the Bears’ 2010 training camp in Bourbonnais.

It was only a year ago that one of the best position coaches in the NFL was brought in to improve the play of the linemen because the front office chose not to upgrade at the position with new talent. While Rod Marinelli failed to dramatically improve the play of the defensive line last year, the Bears are hoping Mike Tice — one of the top offensive line coaches in the league — will have better luck with his guys this season.

The Bears, unlike last season when they brought in Orlando Pace, Frank Omiyale, and Kevin Shaffer, elected to stand pat this off-season and hope to improve internally. Three of the five starters on the offensive line this year could be different than from a year ago.

It all starts at center as Olin Kreutz continues to man the position he’s held for a decade. Kreutz should have a more productive season this year after undergoing surgery to repair an ailing Achilles tendon in the off-season. Although he’s getting older, his toughness and determination should allow him to squeeze at least one more quality season out of his aging body.

The other position to remain the same is likely to be at right guard where Roberto Garza should maintain his grasp on the starting gig. Garza is one of the most unheralded linemen — not just guards — in the league. He rarely gives up sacks and is a model of consistency. While not spectacular, he’s one of the few linemen the Bears don’t have to worry about contributing at a productive level.

Assuming he stays healthy, this should be the first year that Chris Williams shows Bears fans why the organization took him in the first round of the 2008 draft to be the cornerstone left tackle for the next decade. He’ll dramatically improve the left tackle position that Pace started at last year. Statistics show that after the Bears made the switch to Williams midway through last season, the run game began to improve. Williams is a more solid pass blocker, which will be a necessity in Mike Martz’s aerial offense.

The two positions in question heading into training camp will be right tackle and left guard. Frank Omiyale will get the first look at tackle, a position he’s much better suited to play than the left guard spot the Bears had him playing for much of last year. The Bears like his pass protection and believe he can be a left tackle, which makes him an invaluable piece on the right side of the line in Martz’s offense.

At left guard, the Bears are holding an open competition to determine the best fit. According to Tice, second-year player Johan Asiata has a leg up on the competition. At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Asiata is a physical specimen and should help improve the run game from last year’s disastrous exhibition. Nipping at his heels is veteran Josh Beekman — who spent much of the off-season playing center, the position for which he’s being groomed, for the rehabilitating Kreutz — and second-year player Lance Louis.

The one player who will probably not start but is one of the most valuable assets because of his versatility and ability to play four positions is Shaffer. Tice has raved about how well Shaffer has been performing this off-season and how he’d be ready to step in at a moment’s notice at either guard or tackle spot.

The one other player of note to keep an eye on is rookie seventh-round draft pick J’Marcus Webb. Webb is still a developmental project at this point but Tice loves his size (6-8, 335) and toughness and it’ll be interesting to see how he progresses in training camp and the preseason.

Marinelli proved not to be a miracle worker last year with the defensive line even though the organization made him out to be able to walk on water last off-season. As such, modest expectations are probably wise at this point for how Tice can improve the offensive line. But how well the line can jell together and protect Jay Cutler from getting bruised and battered is just as important to the success of the offense as any other factors that will be scrutinized in training camp.

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