When the Chicago Bears decided to part ways with center Olin Kreutz, his replacement seemed certain when they signed former Seattle center Chris Spencer.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (AP) — When the Chicago Bears decided to part ways with center Olin Kreutz, his replacement seemed certain when they signed former Seattle center Chris Spencer.
However, Bears right guard Roberto Garza has picked up the center position well enough to make coaches feel he can remain there all season.
When the team released the first official depth chart Wednesday, Garza was listed as first-team center and has the stamp of approval of the coaching staff.
"Olin has always been the guy and I’ve always sat back and watched what he’s done, and I’m trying to do things the way he’s done by always trying to make the guys around you better," said Garza, who hasn’t started at center since he did it for the Atlanta Falcons in the final game of the 2001 season.
The line was not the only surprise: The depth chart also has veteran wide receiver Roy Williams ahead of Johnny Knox after a week of practices. But it is up front where the Bears had some of the biggest questions last season, giving up a league-worst 56 sacks — all but four of them involving quarterback Jay Cutler.
Offensive line coach Mike Tice set his starting line early so it can gel as a unit, even though it doesn’t include Spencer, who is listed as backup center.
If the line remains as it is, the opening day starting offensive line will have only one player at the same position where he finished last season.
Besides Garza, Lance Louis will be at right guard, last year’s right tackle J’Marcus Webb will be at left tackle, rookie Gabe Carimi will be at right tackle and Chris Williams will be at left guard.
Between them, they have 18 NFL starts at their current positions, including 13 last year by Williams at left guard — and he was drafted in 2008 to be a tackle.
"I have five guys in there starting," Tice said. "Unless they falter, that’s the five guys that are opening the season against Atlanta. Right now, I’m not seeing those guys falter. What I’m seeing right now is improvement every day. If something happens in the (preseason opener Saturday) against Buffalo, if someone doesn’t step up to the plate because of the added pressure of a game, then maybe we look at some things.
"Right now, I don’t see that and I don’t feel that."
Last season, the Bears’ line changed almost weekly until Tice settled on a starting five for the second half of the regular season and they helped revive the offense enough to win the NFC North title.
Louis could be the biggest surprise. A seventh-round draft choice who started four games last season, he has improved enough that Tice called him an "elite pass protector."
Coach Lovie Smith backed the moves.
"You would like to lock in as soon as you can with the starting five and go from there," Smith said. "But everybody will get an opportunity. Some of the things I said before. … we need to get to a game, first off. But we’re getting a great evaluation of our offensive line. We have an excellent defensive line. It’s not like they’re going to go against a better defensive line during the course of a year. So we have an idea, but we’ll let that continue to play out."
Knox caught more touchdown passes (10) and gained more yards receiving (1,487) than any Bears wide receiver over the past two seasons.
However, Knox was second on the depth chart behind the 6-foot-3 Williams, who signed as a free agent after being let go by Dallas.
"Johnny is very, very talented," offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. "He’s very young and he’s still learning how to play. Guys like Johnny have just got to learn to be consistent."
The other surprise was at running back, where Chester Taylor remained the No. 2 back behind starter Matt Forte, while recently signed Marion Barber was still listed as the third back.
"I think the system is really different to what he is used to," Martz said of Barber. "I think the (pass) protections are really different and the runs are a little bit different. He’s getting used to it."
The defensive side had no surprises, but the line will have to get by without defensive tackle Anthony Adams for a while. He is day to day with a left calf strain, and his foot is in a cast.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)