The Chicago Bears offensive line underwent a major transition last season. With four new starters up front, including two rookies side by side, it was anyone’s guess how the unit would perform.
Fortunately for the Bears, the front five jelled quickly, which was one of the major reasons the offense finished Top 10 in the league. The unit allowed the fourth fewest sacks in the league, while running back Matt Forte rushed for a career-high 1,339 yards.
Chicago’s offensive line set the bar high last year, so what will they do for an encore this season? With a full slate of offseason activities in the books and training camp just around the corner, here is a full progress report on the Bears’ blockers.
Roberto Garza is the elder statesman of this group, while Kyle Long and Jermon Bushrod are both Pro Bowlers. Yet the most consistently productive member of the offensive line is left guard Matt Slauson.
After signing a one-year “prove it” deal last offseason, Slauson outperformed his linemates in both the run and passing games. He showed veteran awareness in protection, particularly against opposing blitz packages. As a run blocker, he got good push up front and demonstrated solid athleticism at the second level.
For his performance in 2013, Slauson was awarded a four-year contract extension. He sat out every single practice during offseason activities with what he called “soreness” but is believed to be a minor shoulder injury. Yet there’s little to worry about, as Sluason hasn’t missed a single NFL contest since 2009.
An encore performance by Slauson will once again anchor Chicago’s front five in 2014.
Garza is far and away the leader of this group. He’s been a stalwart along Chicago’s offensive line the past 10 years, missing just two total contests since 2005. Last season, his third at center, Garza elevated his game and he finally appeared comfortable at his new position.
He’s the glue around with the front five revolves, as Garza makes all of the calls at the line of scrimmage. The club signed him to a one-year deal this offseason in what will likely be his final NFL campaign. He’s not a Pro Bowler but Garza’s presence at the pivot is crucial to the continuity of Chicago’s offensive line.
Last offseason, two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod became the highest paid offensive lineman in franchise history, yet he had an up-and-down campaign his first year in the Windy City. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Bushrod gave up 42 QB hurries in 2013, which was fifth most of any offensive tackle in the league. That won’t be good enough going forward.
Bushrod demonstrated outstanding athleticism and leadership. Dollar for dollar, he did not live up to his contract last year but he showed enough during his first season in the Windy City to give Bears fans faith he can return to his previous Pro Bowl level. Expect Bushrod to take a big step forward this year.
Many folks questioned how a player with five total games of Division I collegiate experience could warrant a Top 20 pick in the NFL draft. Yet that didn’t stop GM Phil Emery from selecting Kyle Long with the 20th overall pick in last year’s draft. It was a risky maneuver but one that paid off in a big way, with Long earning a trip to the Pro Bowl his rookie year.
Yet let’s not slobber on Long too much, as he still has a long way to go. In reality, his trip to Hawaii in 2013 was based more on his name and family pedigree than it was his on-field performance. Long maneuvers very well in coordinator Aaron Kromer’s zone-blocking system and he packs a punch on pulls and traps, yet he’s a work in progress. In fact, it could be argued he had as many bad blocks as good blocks last year. Still, the kid appears to be the real deal, so there’s no reason to believe he’ll take a step backward this year.
The same can’t be said for Jordan Mills, who struggled as a rookie. Per PFF, Mills allowed 62 QB hurries, which was nine more than any other offensive tackle in the league. Those hurries only resulted in three sacks, which is the reason he kept his job, but that was due mainly to the club’s short-passing attack.
Mills missed portions of OTAs and veteran minicamp recovering from January foot surgery but he’s expected to be fully healthy in Bourbonnais. For Mills, the training wheels have come off and there will be very little room for error. Allowing pressure on every other snap won’t cut it this year, so Mills must make major strides over the next six weeks if he plans on keeping his job.
The Bears this offseason re-signed Eben Britton, who played 249 snaps in 2013 as the club’s third tackle, or “monster” tight end. He served the team very well in that role, particularly as a run blocker. It could be argued that Britton is the second best tackle on this team.
The problem for Britton is the coaching staff’s insistence on developing Mills, a player who allowed more hurries last year than J’Marcus Webb did his last two years in Chicago combined. If Britton is given a legitimate shot to earn the right tackle gig in training camp, he should win out, but that appears unlikely.
With Mills, Slauson and Long sitting out most of the offseason activities, Britton was inserted at multiple positions along the offensive line. He has experience at both guard and tackle, so he could serve as a jack-of-all-trades this year as the primary backup to four of the five offensive line spots, in addition to his role as the third tackle.
And if Mills doesn’t improve, and Kromer and coach Marc Trestman get tired of watching defensive ends fly right past him, Britton could finally get a shot to prove he’s the best edge blocker on the roster.
Shortly before offseason activities, the Bears signed former Saints starting center Brian de la Puente to a one-year contract. Most believe he’d be immediately inserted as Garza’s backup but Taylor Boggs, the club’s No. 2 center all of last year, has something to say about that.
Both Boggs and de le Puente saw plenty of action at guard with the first team during OTAs and minicamp. Neither player has experience at guard but obviously Kromer believes they have value as interior blockers.
This competition will be fun to watch in training camp, as it’s one of only a few pure battles that will take place on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University. If they emerge as viable backup options at center and guard, both players could find a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Chicago spent a seventh-round pick this year on tackle Charles Leno Jr. He worked at left tackle with the second team during offseason activities and does not appear ready for prime time. Leno Jr. is likely destined for the practice squad.
Michael Ola is an intriguing player. He played under Marc Trestman in the Canadian Football League, so there’s familiarity there. During offseason activities, he took second-team reps at tackle and first-team reps at guard. He’s definitely on track to challenge for one of the club’s final OL spots.
James Brown is a former starter for the Bears but he’s backsliding down the depth chart. A primary backup for the team the past two years, Brown will need to be outstanding during the preseason if he’s going to hang on to his roster spot.
Chicago’s front five did not miss a single contest last year due to injury. Mills was the only player to come off the field, as the foot injury cost him most of the season finale.
That will not happen again. The odds five linemen stay healthy for 16 games are very high. The odds they stay healthy for 32 games are astronomical. Those things tend to even out, so expect at least a few injuries to hit the offensive line this year.
Britton may get a shot to earn the starting gig but, unless Mills truly regresses, this year’s starting line will be identical to last year’s. Britton will likely serve as the main backup to both tackle positions, while Boggs and de la Puente will battle it out for the interior backup spot.
If the Bears keep eight or nine linemen, expect Ola to jump into the conversation. He’s a versatile player and the coaching staff is high on him.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.