As has been the case for nearly a decade, the Chicago Bears enter the season with numerous question marks surrounding the offensive line. Most likely, the team will break camp with new starters at four spot up front. Yet for an offensive line that has grossly underperformed the past three years, this can only be viewed as a positive. Fresh blood and a fresh system could be just what the offense needs to finally crawl out of the league basement.
Still, improvement isn't going to happen overnight. The Bears are switching to a pure zone-blocking run scheme, the likes of which we've never before seen in Chicago. It's a scheme that relies on chemistry up front, as most blocking assignments will be decided as the play happens. Considering the difficulty in implementing such a system, it shouldn't surprise anyone if takes well into the season before the front five begins to gel.
"That's what it is, it's getting reps and getting to know the guy next to you and getting to know the system and getting to know the correct technique that we're teaching them," Bears assistant offensive line coach Pat Meyer told Bear Report at the conclusion of veteran minicamp. "It's just going to be reps, reps, reps and we'll keep doing it and continue to grow in that aspect."
The coaching staff has talked all offseason about establishing the five O-line starters as soon as possible, so they can begin building chemistry early in training camp. That won't be easy though, considering all but two starting spots are up for grabs.
"[Roberto] Garza is in there [at center] and [Jermon] Bushrod is in there at the [left] tackle position, but everything else, once we get to training camp, it's going to be a battle for some of the spots," Meyer said. "The competition is going to be good for us."
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During the offseason programs, the starting unit has consisted of Garza and Bushrod, as well as Matt Slauson at left guard, James Brown at right guard and J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. Yet the wild card is first-round rookie Kyle Long, who wasn't allowed to participate in OTAs and veteran minicamp due to his graduation date at the University of Oregon. The Bears believe he can play either guard or tackle but will start him off inside.
"We're going to most likely move him inside to guard," said Meyer. "He hasn't been here the whole time so that's obviously been a disadvantage for him and for us. We'll work him in there and it will take him, he'll be behind. But I know he's been working at it on his own and getting some help out there too."
The time missed will likely create some long days of work for Long in Bourbonnais.
"It'll be a work in progress," Meyer said. "We've just got to speed it up though. He's going to have to meet extra long with us and get to know [the system]. But he's a really sharp kid, just meeting him and talking with him. He's smart. He'll learn it."
Long will likely get his first shot at right guard in competition with James Brown, a second-year player who made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and spent more than half of last season on the practice squad. He did start the final three contests at left guard but he's still the most inexperienced of the current starting five.
"James has done well. He's learning," said Meyer. "He's stepped in and done a nice job here in OTAs and minicamps. Being relatively inexperienced compared to the rest of the guys, he's going to need all the reps he can get. With Kyle coming in, there's going to be a couple of good battles up there."
Meyer and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer have their work cut out for them once practices begin in late July on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University. Yet they feel lucky they have 13-year veteran Roberto Garza to anchor the offensive line through this transitional phase.
"He's a true veteran of the game," Meyer said. "But you know what, he plays like he's young. He enjoys it and loves it. He's a good leader out there. He gets them going."
Garza is no longer the player he once was, and struggled mightily at times last year, yet his experience will be a valued resource for a coaching staff trying to integrate four new pieces up front.
"He's the glue to that line up front," said Meyer. "They respect him. They respect how long he's played and how many battles he's been in. He's done a great job for us."
The competition at right tackle will feature Webb, veteran Jonathan Scott and fifth-round rookie Jordan Mills. While Webb is the clear frontrunner, the battle between Scott and Mills will be something to watch during camp, as the winner will likely serve as the club's swing tackle on the final 53-man roster. It's a gold opportunity for Mills, who has shown steady improvement throughout the offseason programs.
"From Day 1 coming in and not knowing anything, not knowing the style of offense coming from Louisiana Tech, [Mills] has grown a ton," Meyer said. "He obviously has a lot more to learn but if he picks up one or two things a day and masters that skill and keeps repping that, then we'll just work on the next couple things for him. He's got a chance to be a good player for us."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.