Left guard Rex Tucker came into his own in 2001. He was a pleasant surprise who burst onto the scene after not showing much in the preseason. Poised for a season where he could build on his success, he dislocated his ankle, and broke the bone on the end of his leg prior to the middle of the year. He's expected to be fine, but it was a nasty injury. Prior to last season, it was kicked around a bit that he might get a look at offensive tackle, especially since he was a versatile lineman in college at Texas A&M. Coming off the injury, it's this will be a possibility for 2003, if ever.
Chris Villarrial returns at right guard where he has become a rock on the Bears' line. Villarrial is one of the strongest players in the league, and probably one of the most underrated players on the Bears in recent years. He toughed it out through a nagging thumb injury that he suffered at the end of the preseason. He's facing a contract year, so he'll need to have another solid season, to ensure he attracts market value, or to convince the Bears he is not expendable.
Kevin Dogins is an unrestricted free agent. He filled in at both center and guard, and his versatility can be valuable. He was steady but unspectacular in brief stints at center and an extended time at left guard. Depth at other positions makes him an unlikely candidate to be retained.
The question marks abound at tackle, where James "Big Cat" Williams was released. Williams was the grizzled veteran who got by not only on his immense size but also on his many years of experience. His release leaves a void at tackle in terms of experience as well as leadership.
Marc Columbo is a big guy with a mean streak. He's going to fill out a little more, and although he played mostly left tackle in his rookie season, is likely more suited for right tackle. He did well in run blocking assignments, and although not dismal in pass protection, had a tendency to give too much ground. Columbo showed improving skills in all phases of the game as his playing time wore on. Unfortunately, just when it seemed he was making great strides, he injured his patella tendon and was forced to miss the balance of the season. His rehabilitation has reportedly gone well, and is expected to be back at full strength at the start of the season.
Mike Gandy was drafted as a guard out of Notre Dame and at 6'4" and well over 300 pounds (he put on some good weight during the last offseason) was pressed into duty at guard for Tucker when he got hurt. He then slid over to left tackle after Columbo's injury. He was a pleasant surprise in his steady yet unspectacular play at left tackle, even though didn't really play tackle in college. He's a possibility at right tackle as well, especially if he has bulked up even more. Gandy is in the final year of his contract and has solidified himself as a player of the future, despite trade rumors during the last preseason. He's an intelligent person and player, and took some criticism that he lacked a mean streak. After seeing him play, it might be that he needs to understand his role and his surroundings first, and once he takes in the mental aspects, he can let the physical part take over. This is not a bad thing. The mental part of offensive line play can be overwhelming to many young players.
One player who struggled with the mental aspects of the game was Bernard Robertson. Robertson opened the season at left tackle and was a penalty machine, making numerous false starts. He was benched about 6 games into the season for Columbo. What got lost in the shuffle and the media hype about his mental errors was the fact that the he did a very good job with his pass blocking assignments. Robertson only really got beat by Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila on a play where he jumped the snap. Robertson had a very big problem with snap counts, as well as some of his assignments in the running game. To his credit, he kept pass rushers Schoebel, Johnstone, and Kerney from sacking the quarterback. Robertson is a bit undersized for a tackle, and after spending the previous season backing up the interior positions may get moved back inside or may serve as a Jay Leeuwenburg-type who can back up at all spots and start in a pinch if needed. He's a smart cookie, and should get over his case of the yips. He was one of the nation's best pass blockers at Tulane, where he was a tackle.
Rookie Terrance Metcalf was an offensive tackle that was drafted in the 3rd round last year and performed poorly at right guard in the preseason, but it was a position switch. Many linemen take a few seasons to excel. Two examples include Mike Gandy and Rex Tucker. Metcalf is a mauler suited to play the right side of the line. He has a chance to play either guard or tackle. Other possibilities at various spots include massive late season acquisition Aaron Gibson and tackle Steve Edwards, a 6'5" 350 pound monster the Bears signed away from the Eagles. He's been mentioned as someone the coaches are high on.
OFFENSIVE LINE SUMMARY<
INJURY IMPACT: High (8): Rex Tucker was lost early in the season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle. The Bears are hopeful he will be fully ready for next season. His injury was the most serious faced on the line. Rookie Marc Columbo is recovering from an injured patella tendon. His rehabilitation is going well, and he was fortunate to not suffer ligament damage to his knee. Chris Villarrial suffered a broken thumb at the end of August, and although he did his best to play with it, aggravated the injury numerous times throughout the season.
CONTRACT IMPACT: High (8): Chris Villarrial enters the last year of his contract, and has a base salary of 1.8 million. While he might be a candidate for getting cut, it would seem unlikely since he's been the steadiest player on the line over the last 3 years, and has played at a high level. Regardless, his successor will need to be groomed, unless he's let go after the end of the season. Backup tackle Steve Edwards' contract expires at the end of 2003. He will need a long look in preseason to determine if he's worth a roster spot. Bernard Robertson and Mike Gandy enter the last season of their contracts. Gandy appears ready to blossom as a starter, while Robertson still has considerable work to do. Olin Kreutz's big contract doesn't start to kick into big dollars for another season, where his base goes from 1.5 million to 2.5 million.
SUMMARY OF NEED: Medium (5): The Bears are very solid through the middle of their line, but are loaded with question marks on the edge. Columbo showed promise at tackle, and should hold his own and solidify. Gandy had a few rotten moments but overall wasn't hideous. He's a big question mark, and if they enter the season unsure of one tackle spot, it might be a repeat of last year. This didn't show up early in the season so much in the pass blocking, but more in the running game. This bled over into all aspects of the offense as the season wore on.
RESOURCES: Other more pressing needs make a high draft pick unlikely. The Bears might look to answer their needs from within the roster instead of outside it. There are a number of players capable of getting the job done, it's just a matter of finding out who that player is. If they choose to look outside the current roster, it likely will not be a very exciting addition.
SUSPECTS: With all the dollars and draft picks tied up in the offensive line, it doesn't make a lot of sense for the Bears to invest high picks or big money for an offensive tackle. What does make sense is to look for a veteran free agent that can be signed on the cheap, who could serve as an insurance policy in case things don't pan out. What this sounds like is someone who could do something similar to what Jimmy Herndon did for them a few years ago. Herndon is an unrestricted free agent. The Bears might do well to watch for some June 1st cuts to see if a veteran tackle with a little tread left on his tires gets released and willing to play for a low dollar amount. If they choose to add a tackle in the later rounds, players like Wayne Hunter of Hawaii, Seth Wand of Northwest Missouri State and Gary Johnson of Arkansas State might make sense.