Carimi’s return from injury poses difficult lineup questions

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When Bears rookie offensive tackle Gabe Carimi went down with a knee injury in the second quarter against the Saints back in Week 2, I’m sure discouragement set in for Bears fans everywhere.

Carimi, after all, was the second offensive lineman drafted in the first round by the Bears in the past four years and the other player the Bears drafted, Chris Williams, also missed extended time in his rookie season due to injury.

Additionally, Carimi was the only major upgrade the Bears made to an offensive line that was putrid in 2010 and his absence had disaster written all over it, especially later in that Saints game when Jay Cutler was sacked five times in the fourth quarter, three on consecutive plays.

Things have shifted dramatically since that game as the offensive line has shown signs of improvement and has protected Cutler much better as of late. Even the Bears’ run blocking — the area in which Carimi excels — has been strong as running back Matt Forte ranks fifth in the league in rushing yards per game.

This increased offensive production can be attributed to the stabilization of the right side of the offensive line where Chris Spencer has taken over at right guard and Lance Louis has performed well in Carimi’s stead at right tackle.

The Bears did not go out and splurge on veteran free agent offensive linemen, in part, because they want to develop their own young players. One of those players is Louis, whom the team tried to jam into the starting lineup in each of the past two seasons. After struggling to perform at guard, Louis has finally appeared to settle in as a tackle, which creates a big problem now that Carimi is about ready to return to action.

The question the Bears face is do they insert Carimi back at the right tackle position where the first-round pick figures to spend the next five to ten years — assuming he doesn’t become injury prone or fail like Williams has? Or do the Bears remain committed to developing Louis and keep him in the lineup where he has grown comfortable and has helped the run game flourish?

A second possibility is to try to work Carimi in at left tackle where J’Marcus Webb has struggled for much of the season, but there are two problems with that scenario. First, Webb is yet another young player the Bears would like to develop and he hasn’t played as poorly in the last few weeks as he had earlier in the season. Secondly, Carimi isn’t a great fit at left tackle. Scouts have suggested he is a better fit at right tackle because he’s a better run blocker than pass blocker.

Yet another option, and possibly the most likely, is to move Louis back to right guard and allow Carimi to step back into the lineup at right tackle when he’s ready for game speed. That would mean removing Spencer from the lineup, which may not be the best option considering how well he’s done lately.

In a perfect world, the Bears would allow Carimi to reclaim his role at right tackle, move Louis to right guard, and have Spencer replace Williams at left guard considering the 2008 first-round pick has been a bust and doesn’t have much of a future with the team. The problem with that scenario is that it involves moving too many pieces around and the Bears coaching staff will never just replace a guy who has played consistently even if not spectacularly.

All of this talk is moot at the moment because Carimi is just now returning to practice and wouldn’t be ready for game action right away. But with the Eagles looming on Monday night, a team that is ranked sixth in the league with 22 sacks, the situation along the offensive line may solve itself before long.

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